A ‘sickening spectacle’: Elizabeth Drew on the grotesque tax bill’s substance and process

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Capitol

I was thrilled yesterday to see that the great Elizabeth Drew has contributed her thoughts on the grotesque tax bill(s) that have just passed through both houses of Congress (in slightly different forms that will presumably soon be merged into one) to overhaul our poor dear nation’s tax code. 

Feel free to stop reading here and just click this link to get her full TNR piece in The New Republic.

I recall Drew’s glory years, covering Washington for the New Yorker and writing books. In her 80s now, she writes less often, frequently for the New York Review of Books. But she brought her A-game to this TNR piece, which focused equally on the substance of the bills and on the process by which they have gotten this far. (There is still, by the way, some small reason to hope that the whole hideous deal will fall apart in the effort to reconcile the two versions, but don’t bet on it.)

The Party of Lincoln (sob) is very, very motivated to get this done, which leads me right in to the first of several excerpts from Drew’s piece that I pass along to those who decline to read the whole thing. Wrote Drew:

Major donors, fed up with the Republicans’ failure to repeal Obamacare or accomplish any other significant legislation, threatened to close their checkbooks as they faced the possibility that the party, led by an unpopular president, was headed into the 2018 midterm elections with none of their legislative dreams fulfilled. … 

Donor pressure helps explain the apparent ease with which the Republicans gave most of the rewards of the bill to the wealthiest 5 percent and abandoned their base. Trump, the populist nouveaux, would have to keep his base loyal by feeding them gimcracks about kneeling (black) NFL players and ‘crooked Hillary Clinton.’

In backing the House and Senate tax bills, Trump, who has set great store by at least appearing to remain faithful to his campaign promises when it came to the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord, and pushing for the wall, readily broke his promises that the rich wouldn’t get a tax cut and that his cuts wouldn’t increase the deficit. …

Perhaps the Trump base would remain unaware that their tax cut would end in 2025 and then transmogrify into a tax increase. By contrast, the deep cut in corporate tax rates—the centerpiece of the bill as far as the Republicans are concerned — would remain permanent. …”

Another of those who had opposed the Obamacare repeal bill, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, had already been mollified by a provision that would open up the Alaska wildlife preserve to drilling for oil — a subject of a bitter, years-long fight.

(Me: Seriously, what is a provision to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, doing in a tax bill?) Back to Drew, now on the process):

The collapse of the legislative process was complete. A bill affecting all parts of the economy was the subject of no hearings at all in either the House or the Senate. The same thing was true of the earlier Republican attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Both pieces of legislation, affecting millions and millions of people’s lives, were rushed through their respective chambers — but the tax bill was moved even faster so as to avoid giving people time to mobilize against it. The lapse of time before the Senate brought up Obamacare repeal allowed for such mobilization and the bill died in the Senate. That wasn’t to be allowed to recur in the case of the tax bill.

I promised above to offer up one snarky question, in the form of a proposal of my own. But, snarky or not, it’s a real question.

You have no doubt read previously that the business tax cuts are enacted forever, while the tax benefits that might accrue to some members of the middle- and working-classes are set to expire after a few years. Worry not, the bill’s backers assure us. This is a mere technicality to meet some arcane rules. The middle- and working-class breaks will be extended when they are due to expire, after the bill has had a chance to produce stimulative magic that will enable such an extension possible without bankrupting future generations.

My question/proposal: How about switching the bill, so the tax relief for the middle and working classes are permanent, while the corporate tax breaks are set to expire?

Oh, and by the way, Drew’s New Republic piece is titled “How Republicans Killed the Legislative Process.” 

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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Cameron Parkhurst on 12/06/2017 - 10:05 am.

    Setting aside a discussion about the merits of the bill

    I agree that it is appalling how this bill was rammed through the House and Senate with no discussion and minimal debate after having been drafted in secret with lobbyists offering suggestions on wording. If the bill is so great for us, why draft it in secret?

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 12/06/2017 - 11:47 am.

    There has been terribly minimal media coverage of all the anti-tax bill protests that have been taking place all over the country. People DO oppose what the GOP is ramming down our throats, but it’s mostly anti-Trump people, who are paying attention.

    My question is: Where are all the Trump supporters, who voted for those populist tax promises Trump made in the 2015-1016 presidential campaign?

    Are they fine with this attack on their tax situation that transfers trillions more to the ultra-wealthy and international businesses?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/06/2017 - 05:33 pm.

      What Really Matters

      To the die hard working class Trump supporters is that he hates the same people and causes they hate. Liberals. Immigrants. Transgenders. Know it all urbanites who make more than them. Europe. Muslims. Atheists. Affirmative action. Those pampered overpaid black athletes that kneel during the anthem. Those darn Rooskies. (Well maybe not the last one, at least not anymore.)

      They know the steel mills aren’t coming back, or the auto plants, or the coal mining jobs. They know the rich will always get what they want. But his Tweets are music to their ears, and they’re happy with that.

  3. Submitted by Joe Musich on 12/06/2017 - 02:04 pm.

    Tax reform nope..

    Well if the people do nit get it they never will. The GOP both state and federal are the party of King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Hopefully soon we will see a Robin Hood and crew. I fear for my grandkids. They did not come with a silver spoon in their mouths ! What is hilarious is that the state looks as if it going to be in the red next year. And what about all the “save the surplus for a rainy day “ coming from the Dems that the GOP pushed aside when they took control. But then again the Republicans have never been in touch with budget realities of life even tho they claimed as much. They have been the party much more likely to seek the cow for beans through history. Or was it the bull they gave us ?

  4. Submitted by Misty Martin on 12/06/2017 - 02:39 pm.

    The new tax bill scares me.

    I don’t know what else to say but just that: I am not in the ultra-wealthy category to say the LEAST, and since my husband has no income and is awaiting his SSA Disability which may NEVER come, with the Republicans slashing such programs as SSA Disability, we are forced to exist (and I do mean EXIST) on my meager income. But enough about that – it is in God’s Hands, I would suppose, and Heaven knows, I didn’t vote for our current POTUS.

    BUT, my QUESTION is this: Eric: did I miss a previous column of yours concerning all the hoop-la about all the sexual harassment scandals affecting our politics; media; entertainment; business; etc, etc., etc.? Have you commented on the allegations facing Roy Moore yet? And today, I just read where Steve Bannon criticized both Mitt Romney (for not serving in Vietnam) and Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, for sending a donation to Doug Jones for the upcoming Senate special election.

    Did I miss something? In bashing Mitt Romney for his non-service in the U. S. Military: did Mr. Bannon overlook the fact that our dear President Trump, way back in the day before he was our POTUS, got out of the draft “several” times? Several due to the fact he was still in college, and once because a physician wrote a medical excuse that Trump had “heel spurs” and couldn’t serve our country? How can Trump’s supporters not get this double standard?

    You know I count on your insight, Eric. If you could please address these matters as only you can in your eloquent, insightful way, I would be most grateful.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/06/2017 - 03:08 pm.

    Just one point

    We need a Constitutional Amendment that states that all amendments to bills in Congress must be germane to the original bill.

    • Submitted by Arthur Swenson on 12/06/2017 - 04:25 pm.

      Constitutional Amendment

      It seems that such an amendment would also have to restrict the bill itself to one topic. In the case of the oil drilling in the Arctic, the item was written into the original bill, not an amendment

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/06/2017 - 07:04 pm.

    Teachers will get this

    Back in prehistoric times, when I was still teaching Western Civilization to high school juniors, when we got to the 18th and 19th-century “revolutionary era,” I had my students play “Starpower.” It’s a simple trading game, swapping plastic chips of different values between and among individuals arbitrarily placed in three groups for (at least in my classes) some minimal tangible reward.

    Why is that applicable to our current discussion? Because the game was rigged. Some kids received (i.e., inherited) more valuable chips than others. On purpose. Some kids received (again, on purpose, and an inheritance, though of the negative kind) mostly the least-valuable chips. Some kids received the random mix of chips that everyone, in an ideal world, would get. Over the course of a few rounds of the game, the “rich” kids almost always got richer. Some of the kids in the middle were better off than when they started, while others in the middle were worse off than when they started. The kids in the bottom group generally were unsuccessful (if I ask you to trade your $20 bill to me for $1, what are the chances that you’ll agree?), though occasionally, someone in the low group would strike it rich and rise to the “successful” group.

    Then the **real** fun began. After several rounds, the “successful” group was allowed to make up a new rule, one that everyone had to follow (I’m skipping over most of the other rules). They could only make up one rule, but it applied to everyone.

    In every single case, every single year, every single “successful” group devised a rule that would benefit themselves at the expense of the other players.

    Occasionally, the new rule would toss a crumb or two in the direction of the middle group or the least successful group, but whether crumbs were being tossed or not, the main point of their new rule was always—always— to the exclusive benefit of the “successful” group. Most of the other players went along with the new rule, some quietly, others muttering and cursing (quietly) under their breath. Every once in a while, some kids that got cheated rebelled, or they formed an alliance with the group in the middle to take over the game and deprive the “successful” kids of their reward. Occasionally, some kids just quit playing and “dropped out.”

    Not until things had devolved to a shouting match or two did I let the kids in on the fact that the game was rigged from the beginning. Much of the post-game discussion revolved around who did what to whom (e.g., Not everyone is honest.), but the broader point was crystal-clear, as well. Them that has, gets. Them that don’t, don’t. Exceptions are only that — exceptions.

    We should not be surprised (but feel free to be disgusted, as I am) that the political party that unabashedly courts the favor of the wealthy should write legislation (at both federal and state levels) favoring those at the upper end of the income and social status scale. The current national Republican Party has demonstrated in recent weeks that the interests of the public that elected them mean nothing when compared to the interests of “the donor class.” The tax bill provides written proof that Republicans are working diligently to create a hereditary aristocracy in this country, in blatant opposition to virtually every principle on which our Constitution is based.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/07/2017 - 09:13 pm.

      So Mr. Schoch recalls that kids who had something ALWAYS tried to rig the game more in their favor. We can guess that some of those kids became Republicans and some of them became Democrats but now Mr. Schoch is saying that only adult Republicans are doing the same thing… Funny.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/12/2017 - 03:08 pm.

        Can you

        Guess, if more who made the rule in their favor became Republican or Democrat, or independent? One might also look at, in their favor meaning, personal or the way they think? i.e. Tax laws, such as the one being written, should not continue to skew towards the wealthy. Now, what if they personally gain, financially, Is it in their favor or not? Because in principal, they disagree with the law? What the real point here may be, does one agree with Machiavellian philosophy, or the greater good philosophy? We might also want to think about, did some of these children’s thinking evolve over the years from a grade school to know, and if so in which direction?

        • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/13/2017 - 09:44 pm.

          “Can you guess, if more who made the rule in their favor became Republican or Democrat, or independent?” Sure. Considering that Mr. Schoch said ALL of the kids did the same and we know that there is about equal number of Democrats and Republicans, we can reasonably say that about equal number of Mr. Schoch’s students became Republicans and Democrats. Unless we know where he was teaching in which case we may be able to make a better guess…

  7. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/06/2017 - 09:23 pm.

    Major donors

    I’d like to know who these “major donors” are and why we have a Congress that seems to be dancing to their tune rather than the public’s tune?

    Small point: do we all understand that when someone talks about “permanent” tax cuts, that it only means there is no provision in the bill itself that would put a time limit on them so they would automatically expire after a time? If these “permanent” tax cuts do get enacted into law, nothing says a new Congress elected in 2018 could not undo the whole thing and make them “unpermanent.” I wish more of our elected officials would talk just about undoing some of the truly terrible laws that were passed during the Reagan and Bush I and II years. Or during the Clinton years. The 2005 Bankruptcy Bill (enacted by a GOP controlled House and Senate and written by banking industry lobbyists ) could be start. We could go back and repeal all those financial deregulation bills starting in 1980 too.

  8. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/06/2017 - 09:59 pm.

    I would prefer to have this bill to be discussed more in depth, be bipartisan, and not add more to the national debt… And I have the right to say that because I was saying the same about ACA… Those who didn’t criticize ACA (and I am pretty sure Ms. Drew did not) should not be voicing their opinion now.

    As for substance of this “A-game” commentary, isn’t it the same old, the same old: money to the rich (I wrote about that before that it is fair), listening to rich donors (do Democrats ignore theirs?), Trump attacks Hillary Clinton and black NFL players to distract his (read: stupid) voters, and so on. Boring.

    Plus, maybe it’s not that bad http://www.businessinsider.com/trump-tax-reform-opinion-congress-pass-2017-11.

    • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 12/12/2017 - 11:19 am.

      Nope, nope, nope

      The full Senate held 25 days of debate on the ACA. The Senate Finance Committee markup of the bill was the longest markup of a bill in 20 years. There were hundreds of hours of hearings and over 100 Republican amendments allowed to the bill.

      The GOP process is not even remotely comparable.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/12/2017 - 10:05 pm.

        I remember Pelosi saying “Let’s pass the bill to see what’s in it.”

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/13/2017 - 09:45 am.

          I Remember the Rest of Her Remarks

          And the context:

          You’ve heard about the controversies within the bill, the process about the bill, one or the other. But I don’t know if you have heard that it is legislation for the future, not just about health care for America, but about a healthier America, where preventive care is not something that you have to pay a deductible for or out of pocket. Prevention, prevention, prevention–it’s about diet, not diabetes. It’s going to be very, very exciting.

          But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy.

          • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/13/2017 - 09:45 pm.

            Republicans can say practically the same about their tax bill… By the way, I said I didn’t like how both bills were passed – I didn’t compare them…

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