Bush Mulls a Targeted Tax Hike

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George W. Bush, friend to Big Business, can't stop the tobacco settlement. But he can still tax the heck out of it.

See, the new president isn't all tax cuts and "give the people back their money" when it comes to the fat settlement that lawyers routinely score when they take on Big Business and win. Certainly not when it comes to the trial lawyers who, after sticking it to Big Tobacco in that 25-year, $200 billion settlement last year, will be taking home $10 billion in legal fees, paid in installments, over the next 10 years.

During the campaign, Bush called it the "excess benefits" tax — imposing an unspecified percentage levy on any legal fees beyond a "reasonable amount." At the time, he pointed to current taxes on golden-parachute severance packages and the salaries of non-profit-organization CEOs, which can run up to 200 percent (!) if the overhanging money isn't returned by the fat cat.

During the 2000 campaign, it was a little-noticed part of a larger tort-reform package headlined by dollar-amount caps on jury awards. But now that Bush is in the White House and his legislative agenda is hitting Congress, the Wall Street Journal reports that the idea has been dusted off — and trial lawyers are calling it a preemptive strike on 2002. Because for Bush, these guys have an even nastier habit than smoking: contributing large sums of money to the Democrats.

It's a familiar political industry. Republicans bash the greedy trial lawyers and get campaign checks from corporations; Democrats bash amoral corporations and get campaign checks from the trial lawyers. Lots of checks — trial lawyers gave $97.8 million in the 2000 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with two thirds of that going to the Democrats, and they are by far the party's best-paying constituency.

Which is why you never heard "tort reform" escape Bill Clinton's lips. But this is George W. Bush we're talking about, friend and beneficiary of Big Oil and Big Cigarette alike. He's seeing these billions of dollars flow out of Philip Morris' vaults into trial lawyers' pockets, with an assist from the Clinton Justice Department, and he has an idea where the next stop will be: Democratic party coffers. Bush means to start intercepting those installments and send the money back to the states instead.

As trial-lawyer poster boy Richard Scruggs told the Journal, "The Republicans are saying, 'We're going to tax our political enemies at a greater rate than our political friends."

Now that's a tax hike Republicans can live with.