President Donald Trump will soon sign a devastating piece of economic legislation, one that hands hundreds of billions of dollars to wealthy people and corporations while queuing up a tax hike for working families in the coming years.
On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell found a way to buy off holdouts on the GOP tax bill like Sen. Jeff Flake (R-UT), who traded his vote for a promise that the most anti-immigrant president in modern history will take his phone calls about undocumented children. The deal will almost certainly pass as a result.
The tax cuts will inflict massive pain on the roughly 200 million Americans who aren’t part of a high-income family. The focus to date has largely been on the obvious injustice of favoring the wealthy over the poor in tax cuts. But while the legislation certainly does put its thumb in the working family’s eye in that sense, it also sets up an even more direct blow down the road.
Even if Republicans lose their majorities in Congress and let the White House slip back into Democratic hands, the tax bill effectively locks in massive cuts to programs those same 200 million Americans actually use. All told, the legislation would force $150 billion a year in spending cuts — and the Republican party is sure to safeguard the Pentagon in that bloodletting.
Even after that carnage plays out, the party will be able to return to the same playbook it used to sabotage the economy’s recovery under Trump’s predecessor: cut taxes to expand deficits so that you can harangue the next guy to tear up the promises America makes to its oldest, sickest, poorest, and hardest-working citizens.
The White House and its Senate pals used nefarious tools to get this thing done. Their chief weapon is secrecy: the Treasury Department refuses to release its own analysis of the package, which has been repeatedly tweaked on the fly over the past few days. Those opaque tactics make it easier for Republicans to get their massive giveaway over the finish line — and harder for opponents to effectively criticize it.
Where Democratic leaders have in the past been relatively adroit at demonstrating to voters the specific harm Republican tax cut proposals would do — by identifying well-known corporations and the amount of money Republicans are trying to give them, for example — today’s dodgy dealings make such detailed analysis even more difficult.
The other main arrow in Republicans’ tax reform quiver is their willingness to lie about it. Where analysis of the proposal has made it through the administration’s stonewalling, for instance, it has deftly exposed the bill for the boondoggle it is. It’s easy enough for conservative politicians to ignore non-profit organizations’ analysis, but analysis from Congress’ own Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) — a bipartisan group of legislators, the small majority of whom are Republican — is a different story. Their findings showed that the bill would blow a trillion-dollar hole in the federal balance sheet within its first decade — something more difficult to shrug off.
But Republicans were ready for that score. In response to the JCT findings, the GOP insisted that, this time, the so-called “Laffer curve” will actually work; for the first time in the history of U.S. tax policy, they claimed, economic growth would boom so dramatically in response to major giveaways to the wealthy that the cut will pay for itself entirely. It was a simple, easily debunked claim, but those on the right immediately began eating it up anyway.
The ur-example of this playbook comes from Ronald Reagan’s presidency. After pledging to rescue the economy from a “malaise” he blamed on Jimmy Carter in 1980, Reagan gutted tax rates for the wealthy. Boosted by loosening oil markets, the economy did rebound — just not nearly high enough or fast enough to cover the tab for Reagan’s tax package. In response, fearing the drag deficits eventually place on economies, the beloved GOP figure raised taxes repeatedly to bring things back closer to balance.
This is where the modernist version of that same scheme — all but sewn up as of mid-day Friday when holdout Republicans traded their votes for a political fig-leaf — threatens to break from the playbook in an even more harmful way. Lawmakers first proposed to openly require automatic, massive cuts to government program spending in the bill should deficits play out the way the JCT predicts.
They have since dropped that “trigger” policy from the bill — but they don’t need an automated trigger to trap future leaders into slashing spending on Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps, heating assistance for the poor, and other anti-misery programs. Much as the Reagan tax cuts teed up years of neoliberal spending cuts under President Bill Clinton, and just as George W. Bush’s massive tax giveaway left Barack Obama to inherit debt panics that radically curtailed his economic policy proposals, the Trump cut will box a future president into under-funding programs relied upon by the hundreds of millions of Americans who aren’t rich enough to benefit from Friday’s vote.
The Trump tax cut Republicans will almost certainly vote through the Senate is gaudier than past right-wing guttings. Its near-total elimination of income taxes for anyone who can afford a good accountant and its embrace of corporate giveaways that big-business CEOs admit they will not use to create jobs are bigger Hail Mary passes than the party’s elders were willing to make in earlier eras.
But its ideological DNA is almost identical to every insane giveaway to rich people and multinational corporations that powerful GOP officials and advisers have pushed since Art Laffer first scribbled a thought experiment on a bar napkin during the Reagan years. The trap it sets a few years down the road, designed to force massive spending cuts to the safety net programs that allow the American underclass to survive while depriving them of their dignity, also reflects Republicans’ long commitment to class warfare on behalf of the rich.
The only difference between those founding Republicans and Trump’s posse of rich white people? The latter are just more flagrant about it.