By Bernie Becker - 06/17/15 06:00 AM EDT
Republican supporters of online sales tax legislation are taking a harder line as they try to convince skeptical conservatives and their own leadership that Congress needs to act.
GOP sponsors have always portrayed legislation that gives states broader authority to tax online purchases as an effort to give local governments more power over their own finances.
They’re also increasingly making the case that the Supreme Court, which last weighed in on the matter more than two decades ago, will step in if Congress remains gridlocked.
To top things off, Republican supporters of a sales tax bill have a younger, television-friendly face to help sell the legislation: House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzNIH needs public examination after giving millions to rogue UN agency House panel tells fed agency to stop selling recalled cars Trump's big worry isn't rigged elections, it's GOP establishment MORE (R-Utah).
Conservative opponents had derided online sales tax supporters as belonging to the old guard of the GOP.
On Monday, Chaffetz made the case that his new online sales tax measure, billed as an improvement of the legislation that passed the Senate in 2013, has fully united brick-and-mortar retail advocates and online giants like Amazon and Overstock.
But even as he plugged the broad coalition behind his bill, Chaffetz also called out the grassroots conservative groups that have loudly labeled his proposal a de facto tax increase.
“It gets demonized as taxing the Internet, but nothing could be further from the truth,” Chaffetz told reporters. “That’s an absolute insincere and inaccurate way to term this bill.”
“When members look beyond the bumper sticker politics, and understand the protections for consumers, they’ll understand why this is a good bill.”
The issue for lawmakers is a 1992 Supreme Court decision that found that states can only collect sales taxes on online purchases if the seller has a physical location within the state’s border.
Advocates for a legislative fix say that gives online sellers an unfair advantage over brick-and-mortar stores, and deprives state and local governments of much needed revenue. Governors from across the ideological spectrum have called on Congress to act as they seek more flexibility for their fiscal policy.
While Chaffetz’s bill has given those supporters new hope, they acknowledge they don’t hold the upper hand.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellPelosi urges end to Pentagon's clawback of soldier overpayments Coffman’s stance on climate change disingenuous, irresponsible Bill Murray honored with Mark Twain Prize MORE (R-Ky.) is an outspoken opponent of the measure. The chamber’s previous leader, current Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidObama seeks down-ballot gains after being midterm loser Reid: 'I have set the Senate' for nuclear option Obama in Nevada: 'Heck no' to Trump, Joe Heck MORE (D-Nev.), was a strong champion of online sales tax legislation.
Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerDems brace for immigration battle 56 memorable moments from a wild presidential race Trump may pose problem for Ryan in Speaker vote MORE (R-Ohio) has made it clear that he opposed previous sales tax measures. And while GOP backers say the Speaker told them last year that he wanted to work out an online sales tax solution, Republican leaders are also deferring to House Judiciary Chairman Bob GoodlatteBob GoodlatteReport: Investor visa program mainly funds wealthy areas FTC proposes reforms to crack down on patent trolls GOP chairmen slam 'unusual restrictions' on FBI Clinton probe MORE (R-Va.).
Goodlatte and Chaffetz, a member of the Judiciary panel, are split on sales tax issues, driving home the point that Republicans are more divided on the issue than Democrats.
Most notably, Chaffetz and other online sales tax advocates say that the sales tax rate on out-of-state purchases should be based on the customer’s location; Goodlatte wants to use the seller’s location.
Those dynamics have left groups like Heritage Action confident that Chaffetz’s bill won’t gain any traction.
“I don’t get the sense there’s any movement on their side on advancing the issue,” Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, told The Hill. “The truth is that any time Republicans want to work with Democrats to advance bad legislation, they can. But that’s not good politics. Doing things that demoralize or outrage your base — it’s not in the interest of the party.”
Heritage Action, Americans for Prosperity and other conservative groups have made the case that the online sales tax legislation favors large corporate retailers over start-ups. And they say that Chaffetz’s bill would give state governments too much power beyond their own borders.
Supporters of the Oversight chairman’s bill are still holding out hope that the online sales tax bill will get attached to a measure permanently barring taxes on Internet access.
But even Senate supporters of the online sales tax bill say the real battleground right now is in the House and they need to see some proof that Chaffetz’s bill can get some momentum.
“What the traffic can bear in the House is going to largely determine, ultimately, how far this can make it through the process,” said Sen. John ThuneJohn ThuneWhat will be in Obama’s Presidential Library GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Republicans question FCC watchdog's 'independence' MORE (R-S.D.).
Chaffetz’s bill would give online sellers more audit protection, and phase out an exemption for smaller Internet retailers — both changes aimed at winning over either Goodlatte or conservative groups.
Reps. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) and Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), both members of the GOP whip team and relatively younger lawmakers, have signed on to the bill.
But the relatively minor changes in Chaffetz’s updated bill also illustrate the challenges backers have faced in getting their message across.
“I think we feel pretty strongly that we’re right on the policy,” said Jennifer Platt of the International Council of Shopping Centers, who bashed conservative groups as peddling “these red herrings, these slight misstatements of truths.”
That’s left some lawmakers and outside advocates to increasingly raise the specter of Supreme Court action. Justice Anthony Kennedy, nominated by former President Reagan, wrote this year that the court should reexamine its position on the online sales tax.
Online sales tax supporters say winning the battle in the courts is far from the best option, because a judicial opinion wouldn’t offer the same national template for revenue collection and audit protection.
Rep. Steve WomackSteve WomackStudents across the country spend their 'summer recess' getting involved in politics After the balloons have fallen Obscure lawmaker thwarts Never Trump movement MORE (R-Ark.), one of the more prominent GOP backers of sales tax legislation, said lawmakers should be aware they’re not the only ones looking at the issue.
“Why not get with Jason Chaffetz today, and Steve Womack today, and let’s start putting in the parameters on this legislation?” Womack said.