Tax Bill Horribleness: The Great Unknown

The US Senate has passed its version of a tax change bill, enshrining as potential law some 500 pages of text, some of it handwritten in page margins, which was not provided in time for anyone to read, much less review in detail for its effects.

From here, committees will work to resolve differences between the House measure previously passed and this one, in order to produce a joint resolution that can be signed by President Donald Trump.

What details have been exposed of the Senate bill don’t change the expectation that it represents a giveaway program to corporations and the wealthiest of Americans, with a projected $1.5 trillion addition to the federal deficit over ten years. It is expected that lower and middle income families will pay more taxes under this law.

Other parts of this may have wide-ranging effects. It is expected to trigger a $25 billion cut to Medicare, most likely leading to reduced availability of health care providers willing to accept Medicare patients for treatment. It includes the provision to jettison the individual mandate for the Affordable Care Act, an act of sabotage expected to push millions of Americans off health care insurance and raise the costs of health care generally.

The GOP wishes that their tax changes (it would be criminal to call this patchwork of partisan toadying “reform”) would boost the economy by enough to compensate for the direct losses in revenue we know will happen. Our state and federal governments have from time to time made these sorts of changes, making changes that are absolutely certain to reduce revenue in the hope that resulting economic change will, perhaps, raise revenue if very special conditions obtain thereafter. Kansas in particular went far in applying cuts to tax revenues, and never saw a glimmer of the hoped-for economic benefits that conservative dogma assured everyone would happen. Federal tax cuts under Reagan and G.W. Bush failed to produce compensating economic growth.

But conservatives have a silver lining to look forward to if their rain-making experiment fails as such efforts have historically failed. They will use the opportunity that dismal economic response to their tax cuts provides to repeal or degrade vast swaths of the social safety net that Great Society and New Deal legislation established. They are already talking about how we must make “structural” changes to Medicare and Social Security, and they don’t mean expanding either of them. This has been a long-term goal of various GOP politicians, and they may well pull it off. While the GOP is willing to add $1.5 trillion to the deficit, they somehow fail to see how we might possibily find $15 billion to extend children’s health benefits in the CHIP program. There will be a lot of this agonizing over the sad fact that “we no longer have money” and must ignore the plight of our fellow citizens in need now, while corporate interests are placated with the largesse that only vast sums extracted from lower and middle class families can satisfy.

Other things embedded in the Senate tax change bill that aren’t really tax related include a codification of personhood as beginning at conception, a provision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for oil drilling, and repealing the Johnson Amendment, which will allow non-profits (like churches) to engage in political activity. And these are just the things we know about now. Other things will likely come to light over time.

A question one might ask is why tax change had to happen this way, with only one party determining the content of it and done in such haste and secrecy that we barely have an idea of what this will do in all its ramifications. The answer to that seems to be two-fold. First, the GOP has discovered that what they are doing is not particularly popular among their constituents. In order to minimize the chance that individual legislators will be swayed by massive amounts of voter outrage coming in to their offices, one must reduce the amount of time available for voter reaction to occur. Second, our government is on the verge of massive dysfunction, as it increasingly becomes apparent that the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is finding not just smoke, and not just a small fire, but likely a raging inferno that is going to consume the highest levels of the executive branch. Getting a tax change accomplished in service of GOP donors thus became a time-limited opportunity. Witness the rarity of a Senate all-nighter occurring on a Friday and going over into the small hours of Saturday, and ask yourself why they would do such a thing.

I have no illusions about what lies in the future on this. Elections have consequences, and the GOP has the unenviable position of pushing unpopular ideas with a demographically dwindling voter base. The GOP has long been committed to using every available trick to maintain control of governments despite being a minority party, including gerrymandering and voter suppression. But even with these tactics, the GOP can see that blowback on actually implementing their policies is likely to result in changes in voter turnout such that they are looking at quite possibly losing control of the Senate and perhaps even the House in the 2018 elections. The results in Virginia’s recent elections marks the hand-writing on the wall. What the GOP has apparently decided is that destruction can be rapid and repair may take time and is perhaps amenable to further delays a minority party can offer. Thus, the GOP will be looking to tear down whatever they can of programs and institutions they deem vulnerable. This includes Medicare and Social Security as mentioned above. The path to restoring what has been damaged and lost will be long and arduous, if it can be accomplished at all. The tax change bill in its introduction of chaos into the workings of government suits the short-term interests of the GOP donor class, and gives scope to further destruction that may be accomplished before an accounting at the polls in the midterm elections arrives.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

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