Republicans call President Obama's tax proposal 'non-starter': What do they mean?

Congressional Republicans didn’t wait until President Obama’s State of the Union speech to declare that his new tax proposal wasn’t going anywhere, with Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz calling it a 'non-starter.'

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, (R) of Utah, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington in September.

“Non-starter.” A term from the horse-racing world, it refers to an idea critics say is so hopelessly flawed that it isn’t worth tackling.

Congressional Republicans didn’t wait until President Obama’s State of the Union speech to declare that his new tax proposal wasn’t going anywhere. Days before Obama aides leaked word that he would push expanded credits for Americans of all ages, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz wasn’t impressed, calling the proposal a “non-starter.”

Meanwhile, at last week’s GOP retreat, another House Republican, California’s Jeff Denham, sought to quash any speculation that he was secretly working on a comprehensive immigration bill. Representative Denham reportedly told fellow Republicans that such an idea – which Democrats embrace, but many conservatives resist – is “a non-starter.”

“Non-starter” has its lineage across the Atlantic Ocean, according to Safire’s Political Dictionary. “In British horse-racing jargon,” it says, “a horse entered into a race but withdrawn before the start is called a non-starter; the American term is ‘scratch.’ From horse racing, the British term was extended into business usage.” It has long been employed in diplomatic circles, Safire added, becoming especially popular among US Foreign Service officers in the 1970s.

The word has been used on a bipartisan basis. The Sunlight Foundation’s Capitol Words.org site, which searches the Congressional Record database for the popularity of terms, says that over the past two decades, Democrats have invoked it on the House and Senate floors more often than Republicans.

It can encompass an entire category of behavior. “Since taking the House in 2011, Republicans have focused almost exclusively on passing bills that have the support of only Republicans and have little chance of becoming law,” Century Foundation Fellow Michael A. Cohen wrote last October in the Boston Globe. “Outreach to Democrats or President Obama has been a non-starter.”

Non-starters can begin at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. President George W. Bush’s final two years in office facing an opposition Democratic Congress – the inverse of President Obama’s current predicament – included rhetorical non-starters on a near-daily basis.

In May 2007, Democrats in the House and Senate pushed legislation that would have withdrawn US combat troops from Iraq by August 2008, or sooner. The Bush White House didn’t see it that way. "It would unnecessarily handcuff our generals on the ground, and it's safe to say it's a non-starter for the president," said White House Counselor Dan Bartlett.

Do non-starters ever actually start? In arguing for a right-to-work law, West Virginia’s Charleston Daily Mail observed in a 2012 editorial that Michigan recently had become the 24th state to enact legislation seeking to guarantee that workers cannot be compelled to join or not join a labor union. “A proposal once considered a non-starter is now law in almost half of the 49 states that West Virginia competes with to win investment, economic growth, jobs, young people, income gains and lower poverty levels,” it said.  

Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Decoder Voices.

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