Originally published on December 16, 1999 and brought to you today as a time capsule.
For his last televised Firing Line debate, conservative political pundit William F. Buckley, Jr. has chosen an issue that is becoming a key topic in the 2000 U.S. presidential race — Internet taxation.
Buckley will air “Resolved: The Federal Government Should Not Impose a Tax on Electronic Commerce” Friday night at 9 p.m. Eastern time on most publicbroadcasting service (PBS) stations.
The debate, taped earlier this month at the University of Mississippi,examines the pros and cons of charging sales taxes for items sold on theInternet.
The issue has been hotly contested over the past 12 months,at the state and local government level and in Congress, which issued a temporary moratorium on new taxes until the Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce presents its findings on the matter this summer.
Debate moderator and Slate publisher Michael Kinsley summed the dispute upas follows: “Because you buy it online, you don’t have to pay any sales tax.That’s very nice, but is itfair to the local bookstore owner who must charge that tax or go to jail? Isit fair to local governments that watch their tax bases disappear into cyberspace? On the other hand, will greedy governments crush this fantastic new medium with taxes if we don’t stop them?”
For and Against
Buckley will lead the anti-tax team, backed by former secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp. Also on the team is Ken Blackwell, Ohio Secretary of State and a director of the National Taxpayers Union. Blackwell is the national presidential campaign chairman for Republican Steve Forbes, an outspoken opponent of wasteful government taxes.
Rounding out the team is Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), who co-authored theInternet Tax Freedom Act that imposed the temporary sales tax moratorium.With Senator Christopher Cox (R-California), Wyden introduced a new bill this year to make the three-year moratorium permanent. That bill has not yet passed the Senate.
Robert Kuttner, the founder and co-editor of the liberal journal The American Prospect, leads the opposition team. Joining him are Christopher Hitchens, a columnist for The Nation, and Professor William Fox, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee.
Also on the opposition team is Dallas, Texas mayor Ronald Kirk, who carries the flag for the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM). The USCM has frequently spoken out in favor of Internet sales taxes as a critical way to generate funds for public services such as police, fire, education, transportation and health care.
“The sales tax is the single largest source of state tax revenue ($1.47 billion in 1997) and is a critical component of thousands of local revenue systems in 25 states,” the USCM says in its policy statement on Internet taxation.
Although Buckley’s Firing Line series has tackled dozens of different politically volatile issues over nearly three decades on the air, the commentator has only once before taken on Internet issues in a debate.
In March 1996, Firing Line featured “Resolved: The Government Has the Right to Regulate the Internet.” Buckley and syndicated columnist and author Arianna Huffington led the affirmative team against American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Ira Glasser and Esther Dyson, who later became the first chairwoman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a group charged with privatizing the Internet domain name registration process.