President Trump pushes tax reform last September in Indiana.
President Trump pushes tax reform last September in Indiana.

WASHINGTON – Congressional Republicans are on the verge of securing a sweeping tax-cut package, their signature political win of the first year of the Trump administration. In the process, governance in Washington has sunk to new depths.

The GOP achieved victory by doing to Democrats exactly what Republicans accused Democrats of doing to them on health-care reform. They’re ramming through massive legislation with no substantive input from the other side.

The House and Senate bills were introduced, voted on in their respective committees and on the floors of each chamber over the course of about a month.

Republicans lamented what they called a legislative process in health-care reform that ignored regular order. But the GOP’s committee markups of tax reform were just as devoid of any real legislating as the Democrats’ mark ups of the health care bill.

In each case, the opposition could raise objections, but there was no way the majority was going to allow them to make meaningful changes to the bills. In addition, Democrats will not be able to apply the leverage of a filibuster in the Senate because the tax bill in that chamber will be advanced under special rules requiring only a majority vote.

Republicans are putting the best face on it.

Molly Gillaspie, spokeswoman for Senate primary candidate Rep. Luke Messer, R-6th CD, wrote in an email that the House, Senate and President Donald J. Trump “have been working on this tax cut plan for months. The legislation went through regular order, exactly as it’s supposed to.”

House and Senate Republicans and Trump worked with each other, not Democrats. It was the letter but not the spirit of regular order, where there’s at least a chance that both parties can contribute to the outcome.
This kind of one-sided legislating will ensure that the GOP team gets what it thinks is a crucial win in advance of next year’s mid-term elections. In sports, making sacrifices for the team is a necessity. In politics, it can be disastrous.

One of the sacrifices that GOP has made is abandoning the high ground on deficit reduction. The non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that the Senate tax bill will increase the deficit by $1 trillion over 10 years – and that takes into account so-called dynamic scoring that assumes the tax cuts will generate economic growth.

When the GOP huffs and puffs in the future about the deficit spiraling out of control, Democrats will remind Republicans that they championed a tax plan that blew the deficit house down.

Republicans have convinced themselves that tax cuts will pay for themselves, a daring political gamble.

Amy Graham, a spokeswoman for Republican Sen. Todd Young, wrote in an email that her boss “consulted with eminent economists” before deciding to back the Senate tax bill.

“In the end, he determined that the economic activity that will be spurred by tax reform, regulatory reform and other job-boosting policies will lead to greater economic growth, more jobs and higher wages for the next 10 years and beyond,” Graham said.

Republicans better hope that that’s the formula. History suggests that it’s not.

U.S. companies already are sitting on piles of cash generated by quarter after quarter of strong profits. They haven’t plowed that money into significantly higher wages, and that’s what’s given the topic such political momentum. What is going to make companies put the extra cash they have in their pocket from tax reform toward wage growth?

The other risk that Republicans are taking is that the benefits of tax cuts won’t be obvious to the Americans who receive them.

Even if you take GOP rhetoric at face value and assume that a family of four with income of about $73,000 will receive a tax cut of $2,200, that doesn’t mean that they’ll perceive that $2,200 magically appears in their pockets. They’re not necessarily receiving a $2,200 return. They’re paying $2,200 less in taxes – but are still paying taxes.

Even though the Affordable Care Act caused many on the right to go into political convulsions, it did produce something tangible for its recipients: health care coverage that they didn’t have before. They’re getting used to it, and Obamacare is becoming more popular.

With so much of the benefits of tax cuts going to corporations, it’s not clear that they will provide a big political boost for the GOP. Taxes are complicated and will remain so after the tax bill becomes law, making it easy for Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly to vote against the measure.

“It’s not tax reform,” he said in a recent video. “It’s a partisan tax-hike on Indiana’s middle class.”

Whether it’s a tax cut or a tax increase can be debated. The fact that it’s partisan is clear. 

Schoeff is HPI’s Washington correspondent