Not Quite Better Than Nothing

It’s been a long dry year for Republicans. They finally have control of the House and the Senate and the White House, and that’s done them no good. They couldn’t repeal Obamacare even when they set up that vote under the “reconciliation” rule in the Senate that meant they’d only need fifty votes to do that, and they had fifty-two Republican senators there – and three senators defected. They didn’t even bother to introduce an infrastructure bill, and too many Republicans thought that the amazing new Trump Wall, down Mexico way, was a stupid idea. Mexico was never going to pay for it, which would have been okay, and amusing, but they certainly weren’t going to pay for that thing. They introduced no bill to fund that wall. They didn’t attach funding for that wall to any other appropriations bill. They let that slip. They let CHIP – the Childhood health Insurance Program – slip too. They couldn’t find a way to reauthorize that program. Nine million poor children are losing their health insurance, because this Republican congress couldn’t get organized. Perhaps they renamed a few post offices. No one remembers. The best they could do was pass a continuing resolution to keep the government open, with all spending in place, as is, but that expires the Friday before Christmas. The government will shut down on that day, unless they pass another two-week continuing resolution, and then another, and then another – while they argue about what the government should and should not be doing, and how to pay for what it really should be doing, and no more, in some hypothetical future. That may be the best that they can do.

This has been a bit embarrassing. The Republicans will pass something or other. Really, they will. They have to. They have to have at least one first-year accomplishment, to prove that they can actually govern. The midterm elections come up next year. They can’t look like they can’t get one damned thing done. Voters will turn on them, so they’ll pass a package of tax cuts. Voters like tax cuts. Everyone likes tax cuts. They also have been told by their donors to get these tax cuts passed, and signed into law, or they won’t have the funds to run a midterm campaign at all. No one will be writing them big checks. They’ll have to find real work. And Donald Trump has to have at least one first-year accomplishment, to prove that he can actually govern, and not just tweet random angry nonsense.

Something had to be done, and they finally got their act together:

Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said she’ll back the GOP tax bill – putting to rest any questions about her support.

With Collins’s backing, the GOP has all but clinched the votes necessary to pass the legislation. Collins had said previously she wanted to review the final legislation before deciding.

And that was that:

The House is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the tax bill following a floor debate that morning. The House Rules Committee will meet Monday evening to set the terms for the floor vote, according to a statement from the Committee.

The legislation will then be sent to the Senate, where GOP leaders intend to bring it up as soon as they get it, said David Popp, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Under Senate rules, the measure will be debated for up to 10 hours, divided equally between Republicans and Democrats, so that could push the vote to Wednesday.

Those ten hours of debate, divided equally between Republicans and Democrats, are a formality. That will be ten hours of political posturing, for the record, reference material for the midterm campaigns. This is a done deal, but getting there was curious:

In a speech on the Senate floor on Monday, Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-KY) reiterated his promise to Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) to hold votes this week on three policies to mitigate the damage the tax bill would do to the nation’s health insurance markets. Collins originally said her vote for the tax bill – which is scheduled to happen either Tuesday or Wednesday – would depend on whether the other policies become law. But the vote on the continuing resolution to fund the government and the bills McConnell plans to attach to it, won’t happen until later in the week, making her promise Monday to support the tax bill a giant leap of faith.

McConnell says that at the end of the week, in the vote to keep the government from shutting down, Collins will get what she wants:

“We must pass a routine waiver to avoid unacceptable cuts in Medicare funding and other vital programs,” McConnell said, referring to Congress’ PAYGO law that unless waived would trigger hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to federal programs due to the tax bill’s $1 trillion-plus price tag.

“And of particular importance,” he continued, “faced with the continued failure of Obamacare to keep health insurance affordable for working Americans, we must take this opportunity to pass bipartisan solutions that will help stabilize collapsing health insurance markets and lower premiums for individuals and families across the country.”

McConnell is presumably referring to two health policies Collins demanded in exchange for her vote on the tax bill – one to restore government subsidies to insurance companies that Trump cut off earlier this year, and the other to set up a temporary federal reinsurance program. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the co-author of the first bill, also pledged that it would be attached to the funding bill that must pass before midnight Friday to avoid a government shutdown.

That’s nice, but some things are out of McConnell’s hands:

House Republicans have long been hostile to Collins’ health care bills, deriding them as “welfare” and a “bailout” for insurance companies – though insurers are compelled to provide the subsidies to low-income patients whether or not the government reimburses them.

Collins will be in the dark about whether her market stabilization bills will ever become law when she decides how to vote on a tax bill that nukes the individual mandate.

Collins got played, but the Republicans had to pass something, and there’s that other guy:

A day before Republicans are expected to begin voting on their $1.5 trillion tax cut, the big question was not whether it would pass but why the lone Republican Senate holdout, Bob Corker of Tennessee, suddenly flipped his position to support a bill he once said was fiscally irresponsible.

The theories varied from political to financial. Some suggested Mr. Corker, who has said that he will not seek re-election to the Senate, may be rethinking his political future, while others claimed he was bought off by a late-added provision that would benefit people with large real estate holdings, including him.

In an interview on Monday, Mr. Corker dismissed those theories and said he faced a wrenching decision as a Republican lawmaker with deep concerns about the country’s mounting debt and a strong desire to overhaul the tax code. In the end, he said, he put his fiscal principles aside on the assumption that the nation would be better off with the tax cuts than without.

It was time to put those pesky fiscal principles aside;

Mr. Corker has been the most vocal about the need to rein in the federal deficit. He voted against the initial Senate bill, the only Republican to do so, after party leaders rejected his request to require automatic tax increases down the road if the overhaul did not generate enough revenue to pay for itself.

As recently as last Wednesday, Mr. Corker said the final changes being made to the combined Senate and House bill had done little to assuage his concerns that his party was being fiscally reckless.

“My deficit concerns have not been alleviated,” said Mr. Corker, who lamented that the bill could have been improved with more time.

On Friday, Mr. Corker stunned many in Washington when he said he would back the tax bill, which, while imperfect, would still be good for the country.

In short, something is better than nothing, but that something may not quite be better than nothing, as Dylan Matthews explains:

By 2027, more than half of all Americans – 53 percent – would pay more in taxes under the tax bill agreed to by House and Senate Republicans, a new analysis by the Tax Policy Center finds. That year, 82.8 percent of the bill’s benefit would go to the top 1 percent, up from 62.1 under the Senate bill.

And even in the first years of the bill’s implementation, when it’s an across-the-board tax cut, the benefits of the law would be heavily concentrated among the upper-middle and upper-class Americans, with nearly two-thirds of the benefit going to the richest fifth of Americans in 2018.

Matthews then provides endless tables and charts to show exactly how and why this will happen – for policy wonks – but there’s no need to wade through all that. The rich get richer. The poor get poorer. Those in the middle get slightly poorer, over time. The Republicans had to do something. So they did something. They did something awful. And then they made it worse.

Why do this? Something isn’t always better than nothing. That’s what conservatives say to liberals when liberals come up with new ideas. That new “something” could make matters worse. It probably will. Stick with the tried-and-true. Make no sudden moves. Do nothing just yet. In fact, do nothing. Better safe than sorry – but now conservatives would rather be sorry than safe.

Nancy LeTourneau notes that this happened once before:

Some of you might remember that in a news conference after George W. Bush won re-election in 2004, he said, “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” It became clear almost immediately that he meant to follow through with partial privatization of Social Security. But it didn’t take long for that endeavor to be put to rest.

She cites this:

It soon became apparent that it would be a tough sell. Within weeks, observers noticed that the more the President talked about Social Security, the more support for his plan declined. According to the Gallup organization, public disapproval of President Bush’s handling of Social Security rose by 16 points from 48 to 64 percent–between his State of the Union address and June.

By early summer the initiative was on life support, with congressional Democrats uniformly opposed and Republicans in disarray. After Hurricane Katrina inundated what remained of the President’s support, congressional leaders quietly pulled the plug. By October, even the President had to acknowledge that his effort had failed.

Things are no different now:

Forty-seven percent of those surveyed said they disapprove of the similar bills passed by the House and Senate, the Monmouth University poll released Monday said. Only 26 percent of respondents said they approve, while 19 percent had no opinion and 8 percent wanted to wait to draw a conclusion until they saw a final bill…

Here are some of its other findings:

Among Republicans polled, 55 percent approve of the bill…Only 20 percent of independents approve, while 53 percent disapprove.

Fifty percent believe their taxes will go up, 14 percent say their tax burden will fall and 25 percent think it will stay about the same.

LeTourneau notes the obvious parallel, and a difference:

That has a lot of pundits wondering why Republicans don’t do what Bush did on Social Security privatization: pull back from the abyss of a bill that has the lowest level of public support of “any major piece of legislation enacted in the past three decades.”

I would suggest that it is important to take a bigger picture look at what Trump and the Republicans have been doing this year. In addition to this horrendous tax bill, they tried to repeal Obamacare—despite the damage it would do to their own constituencies. For a while now, Trump has been demonstrating that he is more interested in revving up his base than in expanding his support.

When he tried to phase out Social Security, George W. Bush tried to expand support for what he had in mind. He failed. Trump and the Republicans aren’t even trying:

One could almost imagine that these folks are actually doing everything they can to lose their majorities in the 2018 midterms, because a rational person would be trying to figure out how to reach out to immigrants and Latinos in states like Nevada, Arizona and Texas.

That’s an odd shift in topic, but not really. This tax bill may be part of a larger underlying strategy, something that has been going on a long time.

Keven Drum explains that:

I have an idea of what’s going on, but it’s the endpoint of a story…

Beginning in the mid-60s, the Republican and Democratic parties consciously chose opposing long-term strategies. Democrats became the party of the marginalized, defining themselves in terms of civil rights, immigration, social justice, feminism, gay rights, and so forth. Republicans chose to become the party of whites and the party of the Bible belt.

At first, this was mostly a matter of policy choices. Republicans opposed things like school busing and affirmative action and supported private schools. As those things gradually lost salience, they reached out for other, more process-oriented ways of leveraging the white vote. In the 90s it was pack and crack, which shoved black voters into a small number of congressional districts, leaving more white districts for Republicans to pick up. Karl Rove moved the ball forward with more sophisticated ways of driving white evangelical turnout. Fox News amped up its coverage of things like illegal immigration and black crime.

That worked, until it didn’t:

Over time, the returns from these strategies became smaller and smaller. The white share of the population wasn’t growing, so Republicans became desperate to pick up every possible crumb. Photo ID laws became a big push in the late aughts even though it’s unlikely they affected the vote by more than a percent or so. The post-2010 gerrymandering efforts were good for a dozen seats in Congress. The party got tougher on immigration. Republicans on the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. But finally there was little left to do. They lost to a black man in two straight elections, and the 2012 post-election autopsy made it clear that Republicans needed to attract more of the non-white vote. This was based on some simple but brutal arithmetic: There was a limit to how much turnout they could squeeze from the dwindling share of white voters, and that meant they had to reach out to minorities, pass comprehensive immigration reform, and dial down the anti-gay rhetoric.

And so, one thing leads to another:

Republicans aren’t idiots. They can read a demographic report as well as anyone. They know their white base is shrinking and they know they’ve reached a critical point. The problem is that remaking their party is a long-term project, and while it’s happening they’re going to lose elections. It will take years to regain the trust of communities of color, and efforts to do so will alienate the whites who support them today. They could be in the wilderness a long time while this project is ongoing.

And so it never got off the ground. It was just too hard. It looked more and more as if Republicans would shamble slowly into minority party status for a long time as they struggled to remake themselves.

But then a miracle happened. Donald Trump pushed the envelope further than even the hardest-core Republican had dared in decades, appealing all but openly to white voters and shamelessly demonizing minorities. The Republican establishment didn’t support him initially, but he gained the nomination anyway so they made their peace. And he won. And Republicans won the Senate. And they held onto the House. Against all odds, they controlled the entire federal government.

And that, in turn, makes it okay to be unpopular:

They recognize just how unlikely this victory was and they know it won’t repeat itself. Demographic trends won’t slow down and midterm elections always go against the party in power anyway. They’re probably going to lose unified control of the government in 2018, and even if they hang on they won’t make it past 2020. This is their last chance to control the levers of power, quite possibly for a decade or two.

That’s why they’re pushing an unpopular tax bill. That’s why they’re focused like a laser on confirming judges. That’s why they might even take on entitlement reform. They’re going to lose power shortly no matter what they do, so they’re trying to put their stamp on the future while they still have the chance.

In short, this tax bill, that everyone hates, is what they can do before they’re gone for good. Something is better than the inevitable nothing, and Joshua Holland puts that this way:

Looking at the bigger picture suggests that they’ve internalized the “emerging Democratic majority” thesis: They know that the electorate is becoming more diverse, more urban, and better educated. They understand that their core demographic – married whites who identify as Christians – is in rapid decline. This is what animates their relentless efforts to suppress the vote of typically Democratic constituencies, and it explains their rush to pass a massive rewrite of the tax code that’s historically unpopular.

LeTourneau, who is also a practicing psychotherapist, adds this:

While it all makes some sense, especially from a liberal perspective, it’s hard to imagine people with these kinds of egos being willing to admit this to themselves consciously. I suspect there is still some residual from recent electoral victories that looms in their minds and, combined with the epistemic bubble created by right wing news, leaves them feeling immune to what the polls indicate is coming.

LeTourneau, the psychotherapist, sees denial here:

Keep in mind that someone like Mitch McConnell was able to get away with things like obstructing anything Democrats tried to do in the midst of the Great Recession. He was also successful in stopping the Supreme Court nominee of a sitting president from even getting a hearing. Despite strategies like that, his party maintains the majority in both houses of congress and won the presidency in 2016. I’m not prepared to assume that a man like that has the foresight to see that his party’s days in the majority are numbered.

It could be that Paul Ryan is preparing to call it quits because he sees what’s coming. But for the majority of Republicans, I honestly think that they not only believe in their own righteous ideology but are blissfully unaware of how their extremism is alienating so much of the country.

Still, either way, something is better than nothing, and the Republicans, in the nick of time, at the end of the year, just proved that they can govern after all – badly. They’ll pay the price for that.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Not Quite Better Than Nothing

  1. Rick says:

    I agree with Nancy LeTourneau and disagree with Kevin Drum, at least this once.

    I think the Republicans are approaching everything they do these daya like those football players when they try to explain themselves in those post-game press conferences — they have no idea what the big picture is, since they play just one game at a time. That way, even if they’re headed for the Super Bowl this year, next year they might end up totally out of the running based on things they’re doing now. But meanwhile, ignorance is bliss.

    But what amazes me is how Trump’s base — which, let’s face it, is the new Republican base, whether Republicans are ready to admit it or not — goes along with all this! I don’t blame them for voting against their own self-interest. I do that, too, but in my case, the GOP tax bill, which probably will neither help nor hurt me, will (I think) probably hurt the U.S. economy, and at least hurt the middle class and the poor.

    I’m pretty sure Trump’s base votes for him because they like his style, not because they believe he’ll get things done that they like. Sure, they’ve depended on Obamacare to stay alive, and sure, Trump is killing Obamacare, but they don’t seem to understand that he’s really doing that. They believe him when he says Obamacare’s failure is Obama’s fault, simply because they didn’t like Obama, and they do like Trump. Before they ever learn the truth — that Trump himself sabotaged Obamacare and blamed it on the Democrats, just as he said he would — it will be just someone else’s version of history that nobody really cares about.

    And speaking of history, if you’re interested in where Republicans first came up with this “trickle-down” stuff, you should read this Isaac Martin article in the NY Times from a few days ago. You may have heard that Arthur Laffer invented the idea…

    But the man who first put this strategy to work for rich people was Andrew Mellon, the millionaire who became secretary of the Treasury after World War I. Poor veterans of the war were clamoring for expensive public benefits. Rich men wanted their income taxes rolled back.

    Mellon squared the circle by inventing a supply-side argument: Cutting income tax rates would actually increase tax revenues. In particular, he said, cutting the top income tax rates would encourage rich people to pull their money out of tax shelters and invest in creating jobs…

    Instead of an economic model, he gave his readers a folksy anecdote about an overtaxed farmer. He also raised money for a grass-roots campaign to mobilize support for income tax cuts in parts of the country where almost no one was rich enough to benefit personally from those tax cuts. These activists did not have to win a majority of the public. They just had to win enough grass-roots support to intimidate members of Congress in a few key districts…

    Veterans of the campaign for the Mellon plan kept campaigning for income tax cuts through World War II. When runaway inflation put tax reform back on the agenda in the 1970s, conservative activists dusted off those old policy proposals. They copied the old tactics, too, including the recruitment of organizers to run grass-roots campaigns far outside Washington. These conservative activists picked up Mellon’s book and they copied Mellon’s argument: Tax cuts for the rich will pay for themselves with economic growth.

    Today’s Republican Party is the party that those activists made. Congressional Republicans who came up in the populist tax revolts of the 1970s abandoned the old party orthodoxy of balanced budgets and rebranded themselves as the tax-cutting party. They embraced the idea that deficits don’t matter as long as those deficits result from Republican tax cuts.

    So did Mellon’s tax cuts for the wealthy pay for themselves? Here’s tax historian Joe Thorndike, director of the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts in WaPo:

    Did the 1920s tax cuts bolster economic growth? Probably. Did that growth help defray the cost of the tax cuts? Probably. Did that growth cover the full cost of those tax cuts? No…

    Historically, tax cuts have tended to generate some economic growth that in turn helps cover part of the cost of the cut itself. But to my knowledge, no major tax cut has ever generated enough growth to pay for itself completely.

    But what I’m really curious about is how much Republicans believe that a bill that cuts middle class taxes in the short run and helps rich people and corporations in the long run — especially one that seems to be tremendously unpopular with most Americans because of those things — will really help America in spite of its massive unpopularity. Yes, economists don’t like the bill, but economists are “experts”, and in fact, it certainly doesn’t help that more of them are liberal than aren’t.

    But I guess the idea is that, after we (Republicans) get past the vote and all this crap becomes law, the people will eventually learn that they (economists and citizens) were wrong and we (Republicans) were right, and that someday they’ll — what, maybe thank us? Maybe America will apologize to Trump and the Republican party for not believing in them?

    I don’t really know what silliness is going on in their brains. Maybe somebody should ask them if they can explain what they’re doing.


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