Government by the reckless, for the few
WASHINGTON -- Students often leave term papers to the last minute. Repair folks frequently arrive at the far end of the time they promised. And some basketball players don't turn it on until the fourth quarter.
But the stakes in all these close shaves are relatively low. Not so with Republicans in Congress. They are reordering large parts of the American economy on the fly with little forethought and virtually no debate.
True, legislating has been routinely compared with sausage making. It's an activity you don't want to watch too closely. But when Congress did truly big things in the past -- the Affordable Care Act, the major tax cuts of the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush eras, the tax increases under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama -- there was serious discussion over an extended time.
Debate and careful negotiation over tradeoffs in a genuinely bipartisan context was at the heart of the success of the last comprehensive tax reform in 1986. By contrast, the GOP's extravaganza this year is entirely partisan, full of breaks for favored interests and punishments for those the party regards as its political enemies. To call it "reform" is an affront to generations of good government advocates in both parties.
Moreover, this tax monstrosity is so filled with gimmicks, carve-outs and penalties for various sectors of our economy that its impact will be far greater than the earlier Republican tax cuts of the 1980s and early 2000s. Those voting for it have given little thought to how it will affect many sectors of American life. This is exactly what its sponsors wanted. Scrutiny is this bill's greatest foe.
Besides pumping up already dangerous levels of economic inequality, the bill will add at least $1 trillion (and probably much more) to the debt at a moment when adding to deficits serves no useful economic purpose. This, in turn, could lead to interest rate increases that will dampen whatever positive effects the tax cuts in the bill (many of them temporary) will have on growth.
It could undermine our system of higher education, which is one of the great prides of our country. What sense does it make to provide relief to heirs who did nothing to earn their inheritances other than be born while increasing taxes on graduate students whose incomes are already modest? Isn't there a near universal consensus that investing in the skills of our people and in research is the way to foster growth and future well-being?
By tearing away the deductibility of state income and sales taxes, this legislative concoction could either plunge some of our largest states -- California, New York and New Jersey among them -- into fiscal crises, or force them to slash the help they give their lower income citizens. Does anyone of right mind believe this will be good for our economy, let alone for social justice?
Ah, but these states are Democratic, so Republicans are happy to abuse their power to take a shot at their partisan opponents.
Even defensible aspects of the bill have not been examined closely to see what impact they will have. For example, it limits the ability of businesses to deduct interest payments from their taxes. There is a case for preferring equity over debt. But I bet that no more than 5 percent of the lawmakers voting on this proposal have thought much about the subject one way or the other.
And isn't it funny, as Alan Blinder, the former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, that so many of the provisions -- keeping intact "egregious loopholes for real estate developers," generously treating "pass through" income, killing the alternative minimum tax, and being kind to heirs -- just happen to be particularly good for a certain president of the United States (who claimed he was fighting for the little guy) and for his family?
You might find it entertaining that Republicans had to keep rewriting their bill right up to the very last minute, as if they were college sophomores looking at a clock. Senate GOP leaders had to delay a vote and pull an all-nighter when the Senate's own parliamentarian ruled that a "trigger" provision serving as a fig leaf for supposed deficit hawks was illegitimate.
But there is nothing funny about capricious legislating on an artificial deadline created solely to escape accountability. Anyone who votes for this bill is endorsing government for the few imposed by the reckless.
E.J. Dionne's email address is email@example.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.
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