The biggest question about the vastly unpopular tax bill is not what the bill will do (it will make the already rich even richer) or how it will affect the 2018 midterms (the conventional wisdom is that it will not be good for Republicans, but no one really knows) but why Republicans are so intent on passing it.
As I write this, the House has just passed the absurdly regressive bill that doesn’t reform the tax code (sorry for all the parentheses, but jeez, remember the postcard shtick?), doesn’t punish the money-handlers (if you watch the stock market, you know banks are thrilled with this bill) and is exactly the opposite of the populist, we-must-remember-the-forgotten-Americans, give-the-coal-miners-a-break message that helped get Donald Trump elected. In fact, by 2027, more than half of Americans will see a tax hike, which, by my reckoning, is the opposite of a tax cut.
The bill, which the Senate was set to pass Tuesday night, has been called corrupt and unfair and hypocritical, depending on how far you want to take it. I’d go with all three. It was rushed through Congress with no expert testimony and hardly any testimony at all because understanding the bill wasn’t the point. In fact, the way Republicans are passing the bill is everything Republicans complained about when Obamacare was passed.
It’s their second try under Trump, after failing to destroy Obamacare, to push a major bill into law, and they’ve gone to the old standby — completely misrepresenting what the bill would do, which is what Republicans swore they’d never do once they got in power. Somehow, the “you can keep your own healthcare plan” has morphed into the curious message that “tax cuts for rich people don’t actually help rich people.”
Trump, who insists this bill will personally cost him a fortune, repeats the same big lie every chance he gets. “The Democrats have their soundbite, the standard soundbite before they even know what the bill is all about,” Trump said just the other day. “They talk about ‘for the wealthy.’ But this is going to be one of the greatest gifts for the middle-income people of this country that they’ve ever gotten for Christmas.”
The Tax Policy Center, in its latest analysis of the bill, has a slightly different take. As noted by the estimable Ron Brownstein, the top five percent of income earners w0uld get 43 percent of the tax cut in 2018, 47 percent in 2025 and 99 percent by 2027. Yes, 99 percent. If the top 5 percent get 99 percent, I’m guessing Trump has to figure in there somewhere. And if that’s not enough income-inequality for you, here’s also what happens when we get to 2027: The bottom 60 percent of earners face a net increase.
So, speaking of Christmas presents, just imagine “A Christmas Carol” in which Scrooge asks what poorhouses are for and Paul Ryan bounds onto the stage to say, “Ebbie, that’s exactly what I’ve been wondering.” That’s where we are on this tax bill.
We have learned much in the process, though. We now know what pass-through income is. We’re calling our accountants, if we can afford them, to ask if we can be corporations, too. We are suddenly expert in the #corkerkickback, which asks whether Bob Corker, who was the last Republican holdout in the Senate, was persuaded by a last-minute provision that would make him millions or is he just a fall-in-line Republican who proves that deficit hawks don’t really care about deficits.
We’ve also learned that if the scorekeepers say your math is all wrong, you simply invent a new math. For instance, Republicans (we’re talking about you, Cory Gardner) are insisting they’re certain the $1.5-trillion tax cut will pay for itself despite the fact that every non-partisan scorekeeper, even those who use Republican-favored dynamic scoring, has predicted the bill will greatly add to the debt. Most scores come in at least $1 trillion added to the debt.
Oh, one more thing. Everyone hates the bill, probably including many of the Republicans who voted for it. Everyone but, well, Wells Fargo and Bob Corker (who once hated it, pre-#corkerkickback) and Donald Trump. According to the polls, opposition is overwhelming. In the latest CNN poll, 55 percent of Americans disapprove of the bill while only 34 percent approve. If you remember the vastly unpopular Obamacare, the approval rating was 10 points higher.
Democrats are clearly winning the argument on this bill. And though Republicans are hoping that, by front-loading tax cuts for the middle class, voters will come around, they ignore the lesson of Obamacare and why it remained so unpopular for so long. It didn’t matter that most people were basically unaffected by Obamacare. What did matter was that Republicans convinced voters that eventually it would affect them. It’s only now, years later, that voters have come around.
So, let’s go back to the original question: Why have Republicans pushed this bill so hard? It can’t just be about snagging Donald Trump a victory. That can’t explain why Susan Collins and Bob Corker and Jeff Flake and John McCain caved so readily on a bill that could have been so easily improved.
A better answer would be that passing any bill cutting taxes — which is, after all, what Republicans do — is the only way many in the GOP can justify supporting Trump at all. Collins tried another way, insisting that media criticism of her decision to vote for the bill, was “incredibly sexist.” And, of course, there was the bonus of getting rid of the Obamacare mandate, which will, we’re told, result in 13 million people becoming uninsured.
But there’s an even better answer still, which Paul Ryan shamelessly let slip recently. He plans to attack the deficit — soon to be important again — by enacting “entitlement reform,” which is Ryan-talk for cutting Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps. It sounds crazy in an election year, and I’d love to ask Cory Gardner what he thinks about it — if, you know, he ever returned my calls.
But I guess it’s no crazier than running a populist campaign and then making your signature achievement an anti-populist boon for the rich. Trump might as well be handing the Democrats a playbook for how to discuss income inequality in the midterm elections Here’s a slogan to consider for 2018: Make working Americans wait again.
Photo by Johan van Elk, via Flickr: Creative Commons