What Defeated a Negative Income Tax?: Constructing a Causal Explanation of a Politically Controversial Historical Event

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During 1968-72, some unique historical circumstances first put an NIT on the political agenda of the 91st and 92nd Congresses, and then defeated all proposed versions of the measure. Though the circumstances are not likely to recur, they shaped a debate on welfare reform that subsequent events altered into our current national discussion. Previous narratives of the Nixon NIT conflict suggest a set of variables for logistic regression models of 1970-72 NIT Congressional floor votes. Against the view of many earlier narratives, these models in turn suggest that political tendency (or the conservative-liberal distinction) is the best variable around which to structure a narrative of the Nixon NIT conflict. Textual analysis of primary and secondary sources on the conflict then becomes the basis of a new narrative.

A welfare rights protest movement won federal court decisions favoring welfare recipients over state agencies during the Kennedy-Johnson period. Together with social workers newly sympathetic to welfare recipients, these developments led to a large increase in the proportion of those legally eligible for AFDC and General Assistance who actually received it. Thus Nixon inherited a fiscal crisis of states having difficulty paying mandated welfare benefits. During the Johnson years a consensus developed among many liberal and conservative economists that an NIT was the best approach to poverty alleviation, but Administration social policy agency economists judged the political circumstances for such a measure were unfavorable. Nixon inherited some Johnson economists who had worked on NIT plans.

By January 1969 the country had experienced four straight summers of increasing numbers of violent disorders in primarily poor black neighborhoods of its cities. So when Nixon took office he confronted what looked liked a heightening threat to domestic tranquility though, as noone knew at the time, the summer riots had in fact ended. Also, the gains of the liberal civil and welfare rights movements, together with the urban disorders, had created a conservative reaction among portions of the white working class that saw their precarious hold on social position threatened. That conservative reaction was gaining ground in Congress in the form of calls for curbs on welfare. Finally, the anticipated end of the Vietnam War promised a freeing up of federal funds for domestic social policy measures.

Nixon chose the Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had studied the welfare issue extensively, as his chief domestic policy advisor. With Moynihan playing a prominent role, to meet the political situation it faced, the Administration proposed an NIT and sold it as a way to move people off of the welfare rolls into work. In fact, it understood the proposal as a form of income redistribution to placate elements of the working and welfare poor. The written text of his speech announcing the measure trumpeted that AFDC would be "done away with completely", but when he actually gave the speech Nixon added a clause saying that the plan would make none of those then receiving welfare benefits worse off. Liberals took this as a promise and initially looked with favor on the Nixon plan.

The Administration forwarded a plan to the House that mandated the states to reduce no one's benefits. The southern Democratic Ways and Means Chair took charge and, with little scrutiny, sailed the Nixon NIT through the House in April 1970 on the Administration sales-pitch. The country then entered a second straight summer free of urban disorders. In the face of stiff resistance in the conservativeĀ­ dominated Senate Finance Committee, the Administration made cosmetic changes in the bill's work requirement and retreated from what liberals had taken as Nixon's promise to leave none of those then on welfare worse off. That retreat lost some previously counted on liberal, but gained some conservative, votes. The bill did not clear the Committee and failed to reach the Senate floor in the 91st Congress.

At the start of the 92nd Congress, Moynihan left his position as chief White House domestic policy advisor. Stung by the Finance Committee criticism of his first NIT bill, the Ways and Means Chair wrote one that incorporated the Administration retreat from leaving none on welfare worse off. With Nixon backing, that bill passed the House in June 1971 by a smaller margin than had the 91st Congress bill. As the country finished a third summer without urban disorders, Senate liberals introduced an NIT bill that restored benefits to welfare recipients and raised the income floor above that of the House-passed bill. Finance Committee conservatives stalled for 11 months, and then reported a bill that did not restore benefits to welfare recipients, and conditioned all income transfers on work, to the Senate.

In April 1972, a revenue-sharing bill containing federal welfare fiscal relief for the states passed the House on its way to sure Senate passage, undercutting state support for an NIT. With Moynihan gone, the welfare fiscal crisis fading, and conservatives in Congress gaining ground; the fourth summer without urban disorders began. In June 1972, Nixon considered but rejected negotiating a compromise with the liberals who had introduced an NIT onto the Senate floor. In October 1972, the Senate defeated an NIT bill (that Nixon did not back), ending the 91st and 92nd Congress battles for an NIT. That bill retained the income floor of, but would have restored then current benefits to welfare recipients deleted by, the June 1971 House-passed bill.13

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