The tax bill of our nightmares

I’m taking this tax bill personally, because for most of my career I was paid to understand tax policy, and for all of my waking life I’ve studied Congress. This is the worst tax bill and the greatest corruption of the legislative process perhaps ever.

The greatest moment in the intersection of my professional life with that of the nation was in the fall of 1990, when my reporting beat included the budget summit of Bush White House officials and Democratic congressional leaders. President Bush, counter to his “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge at the Republican convention, recognized that he needed to do just that. The deficit was rising, and so were interest rates. After a decade of profligacy (and the fall of the Soviet Union), the public understood the choices.

Leaders in both parties spent nearly five months talking. Their deal cut spending and raised taxes, but their greatest achievement was a reform of the budget process that imposed discipline. It set up a decade of prosperity.

We’ve had ups and downs since. President Clinton’s 1993 decision with congressional Democrats (not a single GOP vote) to raise taxes while holding down his campaign initiatives was the next step in achieving a budget surplus at the end of the decade. Then George W. Bush and the Republican Congress let most of the budget rules expire and slashed taxes four straight years despite the costs of two wars and a new Medicare drug entitlement, while continuing to drain government investment in infrastructure and research. The crash of 2008 set up a decade of retrenchment as many Americans, especially beyond the prosperity belts, tried and failed to keep their homes. Most of us are doing okay now and the stock market looks great, though our kids have record student debt and home ownership rates are just recovering.

And now this: a tax bill that takes from the poor and middle class and gives to the rich, at a time when our greatest need is for investment in education, infrastructure, renewable energy and research into areas that will improve the living standards of our grandchildren. We need to fix health care access (this bill would worsen it) and equitable financing of Social Security and Medicare. Climate change poses risks we can’t fathom (just ask the Pentagon). Instead, We the People get drained of our capacity to do anything.

As for corruption of the process: Budget reconciliation skips over the Senate’s filibuster rules under certain conditions for the purpose of passing a budget. It’s not the first time it’s been used for something other than a budget (Congress hasn’t addressed that for years), but it does show, for the second time this year, Mitch McConnell’s degradation of the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” probably permanently.

It’s not over. A national outcry could flip a couple Senate votes when the bill returns from conference. It depends on how much energy we put into the effort.

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