A growing number of Republicans are reaching a consensus on the path forward for the party’s tricky tax reform math — admit they don’t care about the budget deficit and change Senate rules so they can enact a “temporary” tax cut that lasts for 20 or even 30 years.
Republicans broadly agree that they want to enact reductions in tax rates, especially the corporate income tax rate and the marginal tax rates paid by the most affluent households. But they also want to make their tax cuts permanent — unlike George W. Bush, who settled for temporary tax cuts in order to make his program eligible for consideration under the Senate’s special budget reconciliation rules and avoid a filibuster.
Under Senate rules, there are only two ways to make permanent rate cuts possible. One would be to obtain enough Democratic support to reach the 60-vote threshold necessary to overcome a filibuster. The other would be to pay for the rate cuts by offsetting reductions in spending or elimination of tax breaks — that way, the bill wouldn’t add to the long-term budget deficit and would be eligible for reconciliation treatment.
But it turns out it’s hard to do those things. Hence the growing enthusiasm for the big new idea: Change the rules and don’t do them.
The trouble with budget reconciliation
A reconciliation bill obtains expedited status in reaching the floor and can be passed with as few as 50 votes. But while a reconciliation bill can increase the short-term budget deficit, the Congressional Budget Office has to certify that it won’t increase the budget deficit over the long term.
The “short term” in this case is defined as lasting 10 years, which is why Bush’s tax plan enacted steep cuts that then expired after their 10th year of life.
Republicans passed those temporary tax cuts assuming that when the time came for them to expire, political pressure would mount to extend them. And, indeed, during the 2010 lame-duck session they were extended for two additional years. But during the 2012 lame-duck session, President Barack Obama threatened to veto full extension. He proposed, instead, to extend rate cuts for incomes below $250,000 but to let the high-end tax cuts expire. Republicans pushed him back to a $450,000 income threshold, but fundamentally the GOP dream of a permanent cut in the top marginal rate died.
Rather than simply rerun that experiment, the GOP’s plan for the Trump years has been to enact permanent tax cuts. In its pure form, that was meant to be a two-step process. First pass an Obamacare repeal bill that enacts large tax cuts and pays for them with large cuts to Medicaid. Second, starting from the new, lower revenue baseline, do a big conceptual rewrite of the tax code — including curbing many popular individual deductions and replacing the corporate income tax with a new kind of consumption tax.
The trouble with doing a big conceptual rewrite of the tax code, however, turns out to be that it’s really hard. Hence the appeal of simply changing the rules so there’s no need to go through all the trouble.
Key Republicans want to change the rules
Sahil Kapur of Bloomberg rounds up the key voices on the GOP side in favor of revision to the rules:
- “The 10 years is problematic,” Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch told Kapur, saying, “I would like to do that,” when asked about the possibility of changing the rules.
- Pat Toomey, a Republican senator from Pennsylvania and formerly the chair of an outside advocacy group focused on tax cuts, has been pushing for the change.
- “I look forward to working with you and the Senate on ideas such as a 20-year window as opposed to a 10-year window to explore that,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said when Toomey asked him about changing the window.
- “Doing a 15- to 20-year budget window seems to make some sense,” Mark Meadows, head of the influential House Freedom Caucus, told Kapur. “We sometimes hamstring ourselves with a 10-year budget window.”
Key outside actors like Grover Norquist are also on board with the plan.
Not every senator is as enthusiastic as Hatch and Toomey, but the person who’s really holding the line so far is House Ways and Means Chair Kevin Brady. Brady is the key intellectual architect of the GOP’s original plan for tax reform, and he’s not yet ready to give up on it, telling Kapur he remains committed to the idea of a tax reform that “balances within the 10-year budget timeline.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan appears to still have his back and continues to push the idea of introducing a destination-based cash flow tax to offset the cost of tax cuts, even as both Senate and White House Republicans try to tell him to drop it. House members, however, don’t actually get a vote on questions of Senate procedure. And if Senate Republicans decide they want to change the rules to allow for the passage of a 20- or 30-year tax cut, it’s very unlikely that Ryan and Brady will ultimately stand in their way.
20 to life
Of course, even a 20-year tax cut is not, officially, the same thing as a permanent tax cut. But in practical terms, it may as well be the same thing.
After all, if Bush’s 2001 tax cuts had been scheduled to expire after 20 years rather than just 10, Obama’s entire term would have come and gone without him having a chance to veto an extension. And this year’s tax debate would be simple — rather than engaging in an internecine debate about tax reform, Republicans could just pass a 20-year extension.
In other words, the longer the window for your “temporary” tax cut, the longer the window you have to create the political circumstances for a further extension.
The only problem with changing the rules to allow for what amounts to an indefinite, deficit-increasing tax cut is that it will massively increase the national debt. Once upon a time, Republicans almost uniformly claimed that large and growing loads of debt were an urgent economic crisis that required immediate action. But of course, back then, Obama was president. Back during the Bush years, the GOP took the view that “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” And the growing momentum for rules change in the Senate indicates that with Trump in the White House, Republicans are back to not caring.