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An Intellectual Desire
If you had told me two years ago that I would develop a passion for tax policy, I would have said you were crazy. I focused my energies on the lofty ideals of human rights and equality, and left topics such as tax policy to folks wonkier than I.
In college, my dedication to human rights led me to courses on constitutional and international human rights law, courses that introduced me to a way of thought that inspired my interest in a legal career. I delighted in reading different cases, deriving the generally applicable rules, and applying them to hypothetical situations with new sets of nuances. Attracted to such intellectual challenges, I searched for a job where I could merge my desire to gain a "real-world" context for my future legal studies with such human rights issues as a woman's right to choose, religious liberty, and full equality for gay Americans.
I found the ideal position on the Public Policy staff of People for the American Way (PFAW), a non-profit political advocacy organization known for its work on the very social issues that fueled my political interest. Here, my passions unexpectedly shifted focus.
The technicalities of a relatively minor legislative battle far less sexy than partial-birth abortion and gay marriage sparked my interest in tax policy a mere three weeks into my employment. In May of 2003, Congress excluded nearly seven million low-income families from a widely touted increase in the Child Tax Credit. While this offended my sense of justice, it was what followed that triggered the interest in tax policy that has stayed with me ever since.
In response to this exclusion, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill that would extend this tax benefit to these families at no net cost to the Treasury. Whip counts showed that the Senate-passed bill would easily pass in the House as well, but the House Rules Committee prevented that bill from reaching the floor and instead offered an expensive bill that had no chance of passing the deficit-conscious Senate. The disdain for open and honest debate exhibited by this parliamentary maneuver appalled me. Millions of working families would not get their tax credit, but members of the House could plausibly, if duplicitously, claim to have cast a compassionate vote.
Hooked, I eagerly accepted an assignment to work on tax issues through Fair Taxes for All, a coalition of over three hundred organizations, including PFAW, major labour unions, religious groups and social justice organizations. As I immersed myself in the politics and technical details of tax and budget legislation, I discovered an arena where politicians routinely employed parliamentary shenanigans and budgetary gimmicks to mislead the public about the meaning of votes and the costs and trade-offs of policies. Bills that included artificial expiration dates to hide tax cuts' likely costs and procedural tricks that removed the possibility for bipartisan compromise challenged my conception of ethical public policy making and shattered my youthful naiveté. While the revenue-draining and regressive effects of the policies I studied troubled me, I was most disturbed that the policies often relied on arcane details to obscure the real agenda from the public.
These arcane details reinforced my desire to become a lawyer. Crafted and deciphered by lawyers, these details have profound implications for the distribution of wealth, the overall health of the economy, and our society's ability to fund public services like education and health care. I have revealed in exposing the significance of this "small print" in action alerts, press releases, and editorial memoranda I have written for the Fair Taxes for All coalition; now I want to be able to tackle these details directly. The complexity of the tax code, along with its requirement of an interdisciplinary approach combining public policy with economic, sociology and political philosophy, presents an intellectual challenge that entices me. More importantly, I have realized that, by focusing on taxes, I not only promote the public's interests in an underscrutinized arena, I also make an indirect contribution to all the human rights areas on which I have worked.
Indeed, my experiences advocating for prisoners' rights. Lobbying for reproductive rights, and protecting voters' rights have convinced me that the law could provide much stronger human rights guarantees, but I now more fully appreciate the critical role that tax and budget policy can play in promoting these rights. While laws restricting inmates' access to the courts and precedents establishing high barriers to proving Eighth Amendment violations frustrated my attempts to improve conditions at a D.C. jail, many of the conditions inmates complained about- poor medical care, lack of to programs, cell blocks with no heat- resulted from a lack of resources. While the Partial Birth Abortion Ban limits women's medical options (or would if it were not enjoined), recently passed tax cuts redistribute society's wealth in a way that disproportionately disadvantages women and drains federal coffers of revenue that could go to public programs, like child care or comprehensive reproductive health care, that could significantly advance women's emancipation. While many voters disenfranchised by the application of provisional ballot laws and by malicious voter-suppression efforts, many more lost their vote because states did not have the funds to hire enough elections officials or to buy enough voting machines to serve the population. The tax proposals I have encountered over the past year and a half threaten our ability ever to make such investments.
I never thought I would be as excited by an Intro to Tax Law course as I would by Constitutional Law, but my time inside the Beltway has introduced me to the profound role that tax policy can play in promoting the values underlying my attraction to public affairs. Moreover, my work in this area has understood the intellectual component of the law that draws me to a legal career: as the Supreme Court decisions I read in my college government courses turned on the finest nuances, the construction of law requires attention to the smallest detail in order to achieve the grandest goals. I look forward to studying the law and further enriching my understanding of the ways in which tax and budget law, as well as other areas of the law currently unknown to me, permit and constrain individual freedoms and shape possibilities for equality and social justice. And I look forward to using that knowledge creativity to promote human rights.