What today’s Republicans have done is astonishing in the long history of taxes. They’ve sparked a tax revolt against a policy that, overall, cuts taxes.
That’s because of the way politicians have acted and what the tax plan does.
With no emergency, the Senate hurriedly and sloppily took up a complicated policy affecting our entire society and economy. All Senate Republicans, including Maine’s Susan Collins, voted against giving senators two days to read a new draft of a tax bill with scribblings in the margins. Then all Republicans except Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker voted for the bill early on a Saturday morning.
Their haste and choices sparked push back from the American people, while reminding us that upsets about taxes are nothing new.
In 1789, the bespectacled Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
Franklin had helped lead the tax revolts of the American Revolution. Patriots’ protests were driven by the idea that rightful systems of taxation required representing the people’s will.
More recently, tax revolts erupted late in the twentieth century. Some states limited tax increases and swept conservatives into office. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the presidency and entered office with a new Republican majority in the Senate. President Reagan first cut income tax rates, only to raise them later when deficits surged. In Reagan’s second term, a long bipartisan effort to reform the tax code by closing loopholes and lowering rates passed with large majorities in both houses.
Now, we see unhappiness with a tax cut that was supposed to simplify the system and doesn’t, which was supposed to close special interest loopholes but opens up more.
While President Donald Trump promised he would deliver for the middle class, that’s not what happened. As the Washington Post explained, “All told, the plan would cut taxes for businesses by $1 trillion, would cut an additional $100 billion in changes to the estate tax for the wealthy, and spreads the remaining $300 billion over 10 years among all households at every income level.”
People don’t like this distribution. They don’t like the loss of deductions for them while hedge fund managers pay lower rates. They don’t like that everyone making less than $75,000 would have their taxes go up by 2027. (These tax increases will happen not only because their tax cuts go away but also because a technical change means more people will end up in higher tax brackets.) And so the Republican tax plan is deeply unpopular.
Americans are also upset because the tax bill threatens important programs. That’s because the bill produces deficits, borrowing money to give tax cuts to the rich, and leading to cuts to programs.
Here Franklin’s precept takes on a new twist and seems more applicable than ever. Today’s debates about taxes involve real matters of life and death.
Cuts to health programs mean that people won’t get preventive care and can’t afford medication. And, while Collins says GOP congressional leaders won’t allow the deficits from the tax bill to trigger automatic cuts to Medicare, conservative House Members haven’t signed on.
In addition, there’s no agreement to pass the changes to the Affordable Care Act Collins wants. And, if passed, those changes only partly mitigate the damage from Trump’s sabotage of insurance markets and don’t correct the deeply flawed structure of the overall bill.
Even if the final tax bill didn’t trigger immediate Medicare cuts, House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republicans in Congress have said they want to address deficits – which the tax bill increases — by cutting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
Those cuts are not what people want. Like Americans in the past, today’s citizens know governments need tax revenue to promote the common good.
At age 81, the ailing Ben Franklin attended the Constitutional Convention. The document produced and later ratified by the states gave the national government the power to “pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.”
Most Americans don’t think the House and Senate tax bills serve the general welfare. Collins, a swing vote, should call on Congress to stop, take its time and, like Reagan, build consensus. Today’s tax revolt is building steam but a better policy that represents what Americans want is still possible and certainly preferable.