Politics may have never been normal, but this is ridiculous
David Webber Columbia MISSOURIAN December 27, 2017
Politics has always been a messy business but the process for passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act rose, or sank, to new levels of self-interest, chaos and irrationality. That nice orderly diagram of “how a bill becomes a law” (“regular order” as it is called on Capitol Hill) should be banned from school textbooks for being a long-lost fiction.
In a democracy, open, transparent policy deliberations are essential to reducing the uncertainty of alternatives because policy-makers are not experts. Political expediency seldom results in better policy decisions. In a democracy, as stated in our Constitution’s preamble, “we the people” established government to “establish justice and to promote the general welfare” not to further the private fortunes of the powerful.
President Trump and Congressional leaders last week compared the Tax Cuts Act with the Tax Reform Act of 1986 proclaiming the recent act was a broad sweeping reform and the biggest tax cut in history.
Bigness is not always better. It is almost certain that the Tax Cut Act of 2017 will result in the biggest federal deficit in history and the biggest reduction in Medicare in history. Hardly accomplishments. The recent tax act passed the Senate on a party line vote was formally introduced in the House Nov. 2.
Compare that to the 1986 Tax Reform Act, which was the second of two tax cuts in the Reagan Administration, that was subjected to more than five years of open debate. Moreover, its co-sponsors included Democratic House leader Richard Gephardt and Democratic Senator Bill Bradley.
The 1986 Act was more of a “reform” in that it increased compliance and reduced tax complicity compared with the most recent act which largely reduced corporate taxes and various income “pass thrus,” ” The Tax Reform Act of 1986 was ironed-out on C-SPAN with members of Congress having copies of the bill on which they were debating and voting. Of course, that was before the Internet, texting and, and tweeting — all of which should have made us better informed rather than more quickly overwhelmed. Congress operated, mostly, in “regular order” in a bipartisan fashion.
The genesis of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 was the “Kemp Roth Proposal” that was developed in the 1970s; the idea for the Tax Cuts Act of 2017 was evidently when Republican Leader Mitch McConnel decided there would be a first-year legislative success at any cost.
To be sure: Congress has operated outside of “regular order” for at least two decades. Two well-publicized examples at the time are the Prescription Part D expansion during the Bush Administration in 2003 and the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) in 2009.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993 and the 1995 Republican House Majority during under Speaker Newt Gingrich are two pivotal events in the steady decline of Congressional legitimacy. NAFTA with its specialized trade provisions was too complex for the mere mortals in Washington, making it more acceptable for members of Congress to repeat things they did not understand. Before that, major public debates were simple and clear. Deciding about civil rights, Vietnam, abortion, and clean air and water is less complex than the incidence and impact of specific tax provisions. Political observers could differ on the desirability of different outcomes, but policy alternatives were clear and Congressional deliberations were open and more bipartisan.
Gingrich was the political czar who led the Republicans to take the majority in the 1994, and became speaker earlier than he would have had the man who would have been speaker, Bob Michael of Illinois, not retired that same year. Gingrich stayed in campaign mode and the Congress has been more partisan since as evidenced by having five different men take a turn as Speaker the years the Republicans have been in the majority.
The American public is not well-versed on public policy issues and its unlikely it understands the 2017 Tax Cuts. Even so, public opinion surveys in early December found that less than a third of citizens supported the Act. My hunch is that about a third of Congress and the news media understand the provisions of the Tax Cuts Act and its likely impact on society. Much of the media coverage focused more on when the House and the Senate would vote on the tax bill rather what was actually in the bill and the difference it would make.
Most troubling is the increase in the federal deficit that will contribute to “automatic spending cuts” in domestic programs and increased borrowing from international sources, mainly China. Both impacts will be gradual, practically invisible to the American public, and long-lasting.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994