House Republicans are rushing pell-mell toward passage of a massive tax bill that was introduced less than two weeks ago, has gone through exactly one committee and could be up for a full floor vote this week.
That schedule, and a projected timetable of passage before Christmas, simply does not allow enough time for thoughtful consideration of changes that would, if the last tax overhaul of the 1980s is any indication, have to stand the test of decades.
After the drubbing they took on health care, Republicans understandably are under pressure to post a win. Some have been candid enough to acknowledge publicly that they have been told by big donors not to call back if they don’t pass a significant tax cut.
But that does not justify a hurried process that deliberately cuts out the opposing party because to engage them would mean compromise. In a bygone era, then-President Ronald Reagan and Congress spent more than two years in the early 1980s honing their tax reforms. Yes, the process was messy, tedious and maddening. What emerged was not perfect, but it was a set of changes that both sides had fought for and against, had shaped and challenged, to achieve compromise. That is not a flaw in the democratic system, but its genius.
This country’s founders intentionally designed a lawmaking process loaded with impediments to a speedy resolution. “The political process is about creating balance and equilibrium for the moment,” said Bob Tracy, public policy director for the Minnesota Council on Foundations and the veteran of many a state legislative session. “By not using the process, you never get to a place of balance, where everybody’s got some stake in the solution.”
Instead, House Republicans are attempting to muscle through a bill based on their majority alone, obviating the need for compromise. “This is all happening really quickly on a very complex piece of legislation, without the time for people to understand the consequences,” said Nan Madden, head of the Minnesota Budget Project and a tax expert. She points out, for instance, that the $300 tax credit for family dependents touted by Republicans would be unavailable to a number of low-income Minnesota families because it is only partly refundable. That credit, by the way, goes away in five years, while tax breaks for the highest-income taxpayers and corporations are permanent. Other areas of concern: Standard deductions would double, but the middle class would lose or face new caps on valuable deductions for medical expenses, student loan interest, and state and local taxes. That last would hit high-service states like Minnesota particularly hard.
Another surprising element tucked in the bill is a repeal of the Johnson amendment, which would allow churches and nonprofits to fully engage in the political process — including candidate endorsements — while retaining their tax exemptions.
Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., who is on Ways and Means, said his committee has worked for years toward this moment, with multiple hearings. That may be true, but the particulars of the bill itself — and the fact that it would add $1.7 trillion to the deficit over the next 10 years — have been known to the public only since Nov. 2.
Much is at stake here, because this country does need tax reform. Paulsen is right when he notes that the status quo has produced only ho-hum growth, that corporations have too much incentive to shelter profits overseas and that more must be done to jump-start the economy. The Star Tribune Editorial Board has long supported corporate rate reductions needed for global competitiveness.
But the changes must be the product of careful thought and consideration that includes Americans at all income levels and from every part of the country. Some of that may come from the Senate, which has introduced a different bill that will require, at least, the cooperation of House and Senate Republicans as they work out differences.
An ongoing commitment to sharing power, engaging opponents and thrashing out a solution everyone can live with is what has long separated America from countries where the party in power takes all. Increasingly, that line is getting blurred and the citizenry grows increasingly frustrated and shut out.
The Senate’s version, released just days ago, has its own issues, but Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz. — once again the grown-up in the room — is calling for a more measured, bipartisan approach. Given Senate Republicans’ very slim margin, it’s hoped McCain will use his leverage to seek the compromise and balance that has marked too few congressional efforts of late.