Remember the civics class version of Congress in action? A bill is introduced, vetted in committee, perhaps amended, and debated on the floor before a vote. If it passes, the process is repeated in the other house, and any differences are reconciled in a conference committee.
It hasn’t happened that way for a long time. Maybe it never did.
But the handling of this year’s tax legislation represents a new low, a complete break from the traditions and ideals once professed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The measure that squeaked through the Senate early Saturday was written in haste and mostly behind closed doors.
Shut out by their Republican colleagues, some Democrats finally obtained drafts of the bill from lobbyists.
The details were so fluid that some last-minute provisions were scribbled in the margins. (“Can anyone else read this?” Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois tweeted.) Count on some unexpected surprises as the contents of the bill are deciphered.
What’s already known about the Senate bill, and a companion measure passed by the House, is bad enough.
Both versions contain large, permanent tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, while smaller reductions for the poor and middle-class expire within eight years, promising an even wider income gap between rich and poor.
Meanwhile, the budget deficit is expected to grow by at least $1 trillion in the next decade, fortifying a national debt already approaching $20 billion and leaving Washington with fewer resources to stimulate the economy when the next recession arrives, as it inevitably will. The actual impact may be even worse, as the authors relied on shady gimmicks and shaky math to keep the red ink under a threshold that would have allowed a filibuster in the Senate.
When the traditional arbiters of public finance, including the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation, raised red flags about the price tag, or when votes couldn’t be scheduled before nonpartisan analyses were complete, supporters in Congress and the Trump administration promised the benefits of tax cuts for the wealthy would trickle down to the poor and middle class.
History tells us otherwise.
The cost of the added debt will be passed on to future generations, as well as the poor, the middle class and residents of prosperous states, including California, all of whom are likely to pay more under the GOP tax legislation.
Then, as the deficit balloons, expect Republican deficit hawks to awaken from their slumber and demand steep cuts in Social Security, Medicare and other safety net programs to balance the budget.
Moreover, the ripple effects of eliminating deductions for state and local taxes and capping the mortgage interest deduction would hit the real estate market as well as school districts and local governments.
The federal tax code is too cumbersome, and there are good arguments for reducing corporate tax rates. But true tax reform would broaden the base, split the burden equitably and, after being properly scored, would be revenue-neutral. The bills passed by the House and Senate would instead transfer income to the wealthy and drive up the debt and deficit.
That might count as a victory for Republicans desperate to show something for their control of Congress and the White House, but it is by no reasonable definition tax reform.