Death and Taxes
While Trump shrinks the state, the tax reform bill wobbles to a vote
Somewhere in between the assertion that Donald Trump has done nothing in his first year, and the President’s own claim that he has done everything, so many more things than ever before, believe me, is a record of action and inaction that will take years to fully understand. According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released on November 5, 65% of Americans think that the President has done “not much” or “little to nothing” since taking office, up nine points from the poll done after Trump’s first 100 days. This is why Trump, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan need to pass the current tax bill very badly.
Yet — before we turn to taxes — it is worth pointing out that, in addition to trying to pack the judiciary with conservatives, certain ways of doing nothing matter. That almost a third of ambassadorships and 300 top State department positions have gone unfilled, on top of the 2,000 jobs cut by Rex Tillerson, are an actual plan, a method consigning the parts of government you don’t care for to a lingering, painful death.
But not everything that Trump promised his voters can be accomplished by simple neglect, or by hiring people who are incompetent to do the job. Border walls do not sprout out of the ground spontaneously, nor do taxes and health care mandates disappear all by themselves. And these things the Republican Congress has had surprising difficulty accomplishing. If the current state of play weren’t such a disaster for so many vulnerable Americans, it would be interesting to watch this little Constitutional experiment play out: can you pass legislation without intellectual or political leadership from the President? Is it possible for Congress to run a country while all the President’s men dismantle the administrative state?
As it turns out, for complicated reasons, it’s really hard: all of that arm-twisting and persuasion that was featured on The West Wing and House of Cards actually matters when it comes to governing. However, according to Brent D. Griffiths of Politico (November 5 2017), the majority of Americans who were polled by ABC/Washington Post are more or less unaware of this. They blame the lack of progress, not on a bumbling President who can’t stop himself from calling a sitting Senator “Pocahontas” at a White House event honoring elderly Native American war veterans, but on partisanship. Partisanship functions both as a real thing — the unwillingness to work together or compromise, because the status quo can always be blamed on the other side –and as an umbrella that disguises many sins.
The poll I would like to see is the one that illuminates the question: do Americans, across the political and regional spectrum, remember how government is supposed to work? Did they ever really know? As Griffiths writes, that 65% of voters who believe that nothing has happened in Washington this yeat is
not all bad news for Trump. The president constantly criticizes congressional Democrats for obstructing his agenda, and according to the poll, Americans agree with him. Sixty-one percent of those polled said leaders of the Democratic Party are mainly criticizing vs. 28 percent who said the party is presenting alternatives. Interestingly, in November 2009, questions about the Republican Party generated nearly identical sentiments in the poll when President Barack Obama was in office (emphasis mine.)
This also suggests that most Americans don’t really understand that they are implicated in the problem of partisanship, because they continue to send people to Congress who promise to stop the other side dead in their tracks and then act like it’s a surprise when that happens.
But I digress. Unsurprisingly, the Republican who is crawling up Trump’s back for 2017’s least effective politician is Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority leader, who risks his party taking a big blue bath in 2018. This is another reason that passing this tax bill is so important that they practically had to buy it from a college paper mill to have it ready for a vote before the end of the year. Only 25% of voters in the ABC/Washington Post poll think McConnell is doing a good job, and 51% give him a resounding thumbs down. Many of these people, perhaps the majority, are Trump Republicans who have displaced the President’s obvious shortcomings on the Majority Leader. One conservative blogger told me last week that one faction of Alabamans who plan to vote for Roy Moore will do so, not because they are immune to disgust at his alleged sexual preferences, but because sending such a person to the Senate will satisfy their desire to punish and humiliate Mitch McConnell.
So that’s where we are now. It’s no secret that, while Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi have been able to hold the Democrats together on every vote, the Republicans are, by contrast, even more fragile and divided than they appeared to be last summer. There are the 2-3 Senators who have helped to block health care “reform” by actually voting no. But there were even more of those guys who, it is said, voted yes because they had received reassurances that the bills will actually be defeated and they did not want to be tainted with the stink of political compromise.
This dynamic may also taint tax legislation, which explodes nearly every conservative mantra about deficit reduction and everyTrump promise to help working and middle income people and is moving inexorably towards a vote in the Senate by Friday. Will McConnell succeed in mustering the troops to pass the least popular revenue bill since 1913, when Congress created the modern income tax through a Constitutional amendment?
Well, there’s a lot of purple in there still, and it’s hard to say. As of 2:55 yesterday afternoon, there were two definite no’s (Steve Daines of Montana and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, although Johnson was a little happier after the meeting with Trump); and nine Republicans willing to say they had “reservations.” The important number is that only 26 Republicans have absolutely committed to vote for a tax reform bill that their President and party must have to prove that they can govern. Does the tax code require reform at all? Perhaps, but that may require actually sitting down and writing a bill in the conventional way: doing studies, holding hearings, and taking the concerns of both parties, and all regions of the country, seriously. I’m not sure that there is enough deal making in the world to overcome what seems to be a high level of fear about actual content, and principles, of a bill that may represent the greatest transfer of wealth from the 99% to the 1% in American history.
Here’s what you might want to read about the tax bill (and have you ever wondered why there are no women journalists writing about tax policy?)
- Jared Bernstein schools you about “Real Tax Reform: What It Is and What It Isn’t,” (The American Prospect, September 17, 2017.)
- Neil McCluskey and Caleb O. Brown clarify, and criticize, the elimination of education-related deductions in a Cato Institute podcast (November 14, 2017.)
- Cameron Joseph and Alice Ollstein say that GOP holdouts came out of a lunch meeting with Trump more optimistic about the tax bill, but that Trump may have made promises that cannot be kept (Talking Points Memo, November 28, 2017.)
- But Percy Bacon argues that McConnell is still eight votes short, and there are ten senators to watch (FiveThirtyEight.com, November 28, 2017.)
- Jeffrey Dorfman charges that “Liberal Paternalism Toward Poor Hits New Low On Tax Reform,” (Forbes, November 28, 2017.)
- Irwin Steltzer says that the very best estimates show the national debt rising by a trillion dollars should the bill pass, and that the national interest “probably requires a tax increase” (The Weekly Standard, November 25, 2017.)
Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter.