Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, has always looked to us like the kind of old-school conservative who’d leap out of bed with the house on fire to save his cufflinks collection and let the goldfish fend for themselves, but maybe we’ve misjudged him. Who knew that under those $3,000 suits—and nobody wears a suit as if he expects to be buried in it one day more elegantly than Hatch—beats the heart of The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen?
“I come from the poor people, and I’ve been here working my whole stinking career for people who don’t have a chance,” he angrily told the panel’s Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, late Thursday night as the Senate took up its own version of the tax bill rammed through the House earlier that day. Brown had been rudely goading the chairman to acknowledge that the bill amounts to a giant giveaway to corporations and the rich (mainly because it does). Hatch could—and did—call that interpretation “bullcrap,” but he couldn’t explain why.
In fact, nobody on the Republican side of the aisle can. If Hatch truly believes he’s spent his “stinking” career trying to help the underprivileged get a leg up, he’s outed himself as the most incompetent U.S. senator in history. But very few people have ever called him incompetent. Since he’s supposed to be the respectable face of the GOP’s current tax cut mania, it’s telling that he blew his cool.
If you’ve been following this at all as you prep for Thanksgiving, you know what the numbers-crunchers say. Even though its provisions keep mutating, the bill’s basic hat trick is that the tax relief it provides for middle-class and lower-income Americans is temporary. Families making less than $30,000 a year will see their taxes go up again come 2021. Those making less than $75,000 will face their own tax increase in 2027. Only people whose traditional holiday meal is pheasant under glass don’t need to fret about sticker shock down the road.
Nobody believes that the nation’s wealthiest scumbags are in urgent need of tax relief.
In another gotcha move, federal deductions for state and local taxes will be either partly (in the House’s version) or completely (the Senate’s) eliminated, screwing highly taxed blue-staters even sooner. The Congressional Budget Office also estimates the Senate bill’s repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate—assuming it even survives the latest flurry of last-minute repackaging—could deprive up to 13 million people of affordable health insurance.
The lavish boons to the Republican party’s donor base, on the other hand, are permanent. They range from lopping the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent to doing away with the alternative minimum tax that’s meant to ensure rich folk at least pay Uncle Sam something. Then there’s the doubling of the exemption on the much-loathed (by the super-rich) inheritance tax from $11 to $22 million. Oil companies and liquor producers, among others, will also get customized windfalls of their own.
Overall, this is the Koch Brothers version of the brotherhood of man. More problematically, it’s proving just about impossible to disguise as anything else. According to one recent poll, only a skimpy 25 percent of Americans approve of the tax plan with more than twice as many opposed. But the GOP’s Capitol Hill leadership doesn’t have much choice other than to lurch ahead, because this is what the party’s donor class wants in exchange for the megabucks it’s poured into Republican coffers to get its way. They may withhold such largesse in future election cycles if the party doesn’t deliver.
The big Catch-22 is that doing the necessary to keep the fat cats’ post-Citizens United lucre on tap for 2018 could end up being so unpopular with ordinary voters that the GOP will hemorrhage seats in next year’s midterms anyway. Even worse, at least if you’re Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, nobody knows whether this Dr. Seuss contraption will even pass the Senate, let alone whether it can successfully merge with the somewhat different House bill before this session of Congress ends next month.
Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson has already said he’ll vote no. Several other GOP Senators are wavering. Without any Democratic votes in sight, one more deserter (with Vice President Mike Pence breaking the resulting 50-50 tie) is all McConnell can afford. No wonder he looks increasingly like a worried coffin painted white and wearing glasses.
All this is unfolding in an atmosphere of feverish crisis on Capitol Hill. But the lunacy that ought to leave the rest of us aghast is that the crisis is completely concocted—or anyhow self-inflicted, at least as far as the Republican Party’s political future is concerned. Nobody believes that the nation’s wealthiest scumbags are in urgent need of tax relief to keep Dickensian penury at bay. They made out like pirates under Barack Obama and still do today. That’s why the instantly famous pic of Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and his wife brandishing a sheet of freshly minted dollar bills was 2017’s skull-and-bones equivalent of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima.
Trump could use the tax bill’s failure to openly break with his party and stir up his MAGA base by backing Steve Bannon-style candidates.
On top of that, the supply-side fallacy that lowered tax rates will induce corporate America to invest in more job creation has been discredited again and again. (That was part of what Sherrod Brown was getting up in Hatch’s face about.) In any case, unemployment is at near-historic lows and the economy is overall booming, which makes this bill a drastic remedy for an ailment its proponents can’t define. The chronic, festering problem that spoils the rosy picture is, of course, income inequality, now at its most lopsided since the 1920s. But that’s just what the GOP’s plan is designed to make worse, not alleviate.
Along with the pressing need to assuage the Kochs and the party’s other major financial backers before the midterm elections get underway, the stench of panic in the air is due instead to the Republican leadership’s failure to pass a single major piece of legislation in the first year of Donald J. Trump’s presidency, despite controlling both chambers of Congress. So long as he’s got something he can tout as an accomplishment before January 1, Trump himself clearly doesn’t care that the bill turns his vestigial pretenses of economic populism into gobbledygook. He probably does care that it would benefit his own family to the tune of $1 billion, however. By now, we’re so used to the idea that the U.S. government exists to increase the Trump Organization’s revenue stream that nobody gets too worked up about that, proving how much we’ve succumbed to outrage fatigue.
The Bizarro World paradox is that Trump could also use the tax bill’s failure to openly break with his ostensible party and stir up his MAGA base by backing Steve Bannon-style insurgent candidates in next year’s primaries, which would basically amount to the heartland rebelling against the Republican Establishment’s unforgivable failure to give people like them the shaft. In other words, the Trump era’s ideological incoherence could finally crystallize into the perfect storm. In the meantime, we’re watching something that may be unprecedented in American governance: a party and a president so thoroughly ensnared by duelling dementias that doing something awful has become preferable to doing nothing at all. Believe it or not, that’s now the only thing they agree on.