Shifts Get Real: Understanding the GOP’s Policy Quagmire

Shifts Get Real: Understanding the GOP’s Policy Quagmire
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Credit Tax Policy Center

Right now it looks as if tax “reform” — actually it’s just cuts — may go the way of Obamacare repeal. Initial assessments of the plan are brutal, and administration attempts to spin things in a positive direction will suffer from loss of credibility on multiple fronts, from obvious lies about the plan itself, to spreading corruption scandals, to the spectacle of the tweeter-in-chief golfing while Puerto Rico drowns.

Now, it ain’t over until the portly golfer sings. But still, it’s worth spending a few minutes on why a fresh debacle seems likely.

The important point is that there are crucial links between the health care faceplant and the bad news (for the GOP) on taxes — links both causal and, you might say, cultural.

Republicans took power in January determined to cut taxes on the wealthy, bigly. That has, after all, been the GOP establishment’s overriding priority for four decades; it’s what donors demand.

But they’re somewhat constrained by concerns about deficits. It’s not that they themselves care about red ink: nobody with influence in the GOP has ever cared about federal debt, least of all the deficit peacocks who preened and posed as apostles of fiscal responsibility. But all that posturing makes budget-busting tax cuts awkward. And procedural issues in the Senate also make it hard to do too much budget-busting without 60 seats.

One important goal of ACA repeal was to loosen those constraints, by repealing the high-end tax hikes that paid for Obamacare, hence giving a big break to the donor class. Having failed to do that, Rs are under even more pressure to deliver the goods to the wealthy through tax cuts.

But deficits are a constraint, even if not a hard one. Now, Republicans have always claimed that they can cut tax rates without losing revenue by closing loopholes. But they’ve always avoided saying anything about which loopholes they’d close; they promised to shift the tax burden away from their donors onto [TK], some mystery group. It was magic asterisk city; it was “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree” on steroids.

But as they sidle up toward actual legislation, they need to start getting specific: the shifts need to get real. So where will the money come from?

The bright answer in Trumpcuts is, end the deduction for state and local taxes (SALT). This probably sounded like a good idea: hey, it will punish blue states, which foolishly collect a lot of taxes to do things like feed people and treat their illnesses.

But there are a lot of Republican voters in blue states, and even a significant number of Republican Congressmen. And who are these voters? By and large, affluent but not super-rich households — hence with relatively high marginal tax rates — for whom deductibility of SALT is a big deal. As the details of the plan sink in, these people will scream bloody murder, and their representatives will become a big problem for the leadership.

So what were they thinking? My guess is that they weren’t thinking. What we learned from health care was that after 8 years, Republicans had never bothered to learn anything about the issues. There’s every reason to believe that the same is true for the distribution of tax changes, which Paul Ryan called a “ridiculous” issue and presumably nobody in his party ever tried to understand.

So now the lies and willful ignorance are catching up with them — again.

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