In the dark hours of early Saturday morning, the Senate passed, with the support of Sen. Susan Collins, a 479-page tax overhaul plan that had been distributed for their review only hours earlier. With the light of day — and time to actually read what is in the document — it is time to bring some common sense to this affair.
The first task is to discover what is hidden in the hundreds of pages, and handwritten notes in the margins, that Republican senators acknowledge they did not read, let alone fully analyze, as their leadership hurried to get it passed. An effort, backed by Sen. Angus King, to give senators the weekend to consider the bill before voting was rejected on a party-line vote.
Some provisions have little to do with taxes, but instead are about furthering a conservative agenda. For example, one small wording change allows “unborn children” to be the beneficiaries of 529 college savings plan. Including this language in the tax bill is a big step toward fetal personhood, which has so far been rejected by Congress — and runs counter to a Supreme Court ruling. Such a dramatic change, of course, should be subject to debate and thoughtful deliberation, not snuck into a Republican must-pass bill with minimal scrutiny. Ditto with a provision that would repeal a law that bans churches from engaging in political activism.
Also buried in the bill is a provision that will dramatically lower taxes for hedge fund managers who live in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Another provision, added at the request of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, allows parents to use 529 accounts to save money for homeschooling or private K-12 schools. Another last-minute change, from Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, would eliminate a $3,000 tax deduction for living expenses in Washington, D.C., that is available to members of Congress.
These, and hundreds of other changes, were not debated and barely analyzed. There were no hearings on the Senate or House bills. The last time the tax code was changed to such a large extent, in 1986, the process took six months and there were dozens of congressional hearings. And despite Republican rhetoric to the contrary, this was not how the Affordable Care Act was handled. There were 44 hearings and public events about the plan in the Senate alone, Fortune reported. Hundreds of amendments were considered in the House and Senate.
Worse than the horrible process used the craft the tax bills, the impact of the changes included in both the Senate and House tax bills are largely negative. For example, while many backers of the bills say the deficit projections from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office are overblown, some Republicans are already using deficit worries as a justification to cut government spending.
Last week, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he absolutely supported the Children’s Health Insurance Program. But, he said, Congress is having a hard time restoring the program’s funding “because we don’t have money anymore.”
This is hard to accept at the same time that Republicans in Congress voted to cut taxes on corporations and the wealthy, adding $1.5 trillion to the deficit, according to the budget office.
Backers of the tax plan, including Collins, rely on the dubious notion that these tax cuts will stimulate the economy and, therefore, pay for themselves. In a survey earlier this year by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, 35 of 37 economists said this won’t happen. The two who disagreed later said they misunderstood the question.
Asked what they would do if the corporate tax rate is reduced from 35 percent to 20 percent, as the bills do, corporate executives said they’d return much of the money to shareholders, in the form of larger dividends. The CEOs also said they’d use the funds to lower their debt and pursue acquisitions and mergers. Hiring more workers or raising wages were far down on their lists, if mentioned at all.
This will not grow the economy, Goldman Sachs analysts wrote to the company’s clients on Monday. The memo said the tax cuts would lead to minimal economic growth in early years, but after 2020 “[growth] looks minimal and could actually be slightly negative.”
There are elements of the tax bills that will benefit low- and middle-income families. But, they are small, and temporary, compared to the benefits that flow to corporations and rich Americans. Collins made the Senate bill better in small ways, but the promises on health care she received appear fleeting.
On balance, the bills remain unaffordable giveaways to people and big businesses that don’t need tax breaks that won’t pay for themselves, leaving a large hole in the budget that Republicans will seek to close by cutting spending.
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