A Calamitous Day
Posted on December 4, 2017
Friday was a calamitous day, a punch in America’s gut. I will just mention in passing the guilty plea by former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn to a felony charge of lying to the FBI and the President’s apparent unwitting admission that he tried to obstruct justice by asking the then-FBI Director, James Comey, to drop his investigation into Flynn at he time that he knew Flynn had lied to the FBI. I want to focus instead on the tax bill that passed the Senate. And I don’t want to focus on the minutiae of the bill itself (as of the time it passed the Senate, hardly anyone, including me of course, could claim to have read it, and let’s just say I didn’t spend my weekend pouring over its details). I want to focus on two big-picture issues: the process the Republican used to ram the highly unpopular bill through the Congress, and what the bill’s big-picture effects mean for the country.
First, the process. Sometimes there is a real-world need, real or perceived, for speed in the Congress. In recent years I can think of two big moments: the aftermath of 9/11, when Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force and the Patriot Act; and the aftermath of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, when Congress passed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act. These were the two most sobering moments I can remember in my lifetime. Can you imagine the stress that Secretary Paulson must have felt, for example, when Lehman Brothers collapsed? The fate of the world economy rested, in no small part, on his shoulders. Or can you imagine the stress that Secretary Rumsfeld must have felt immediately after 9/11? The same was true in a smaller way for the members of Congress (smaller because they had no executive responsibility and because each of them was one among many). The need for immediate action was apparent to everyone. In hindsight the legislation (in particular certain provisions in the Patriot Act and the AUMF, at least as it has been interpreted) may have been unwise in some ways. But all of those bills passed with wide bipartisan margins.
Now consider the tax bill that the Senate has just passed (it differs from the House bill, and the two will have to be reconciled before any bill becomes law). No hearings were held. The bill was being rewritten on the floor, by hand, until shortly before its passage. Congress acted before the economic effects of the bill were studied, let alone debated. And the bill passed the Senate 51-49, with no Democratic votes (and one Republican voting no).
What national emergency prompted this rush to action? Everyone knows there is none. And this is not just a partisan view. According to the Press Secretary, due to the “Trump Effect,” “the U.S. economy is running at its full potential for the first time in a decade.” Hardly the time for emergency economic legislation. Perhaps there was some political necessity, some rising up of the American people to demand this bill? No, of course there wasn’t. The bill is historically unpopular.
It’s not as though the answer is hidden or hard to find:
[Senator Lindsay] Graham has been the most frank spokesman for how vital this tax bill is to the future of the Republican Party. Donors (who would benefit from this bill) would just stop giving to the party, he’s warned. Republicans could lose their majorities in Congress, he and others have warned. Failures to pass it “will be the end of us as a party,” Graham told the New York Times at one point during this process.
Let’s just take a look at one aspect of the bill—the abolition of the estate tax. The estate tax is imposed only on estates worth more than $5.5 million, which means that with a little basic tax planning a married couple with estates worth $11 million in total can avoid the tax altogether. So the tax touches only a very few people. But the tax or similar taxes that preceded it has an historically important role in curbing the accumulation of dynastic wealth, which is critical for our socio-political culture. So it’s very disheartening to the comments of Senator Grassley, supposedly one of the more serious Republican senators, on the matter:
I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing, as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.
Is Senator Grassley really foolish enough to think that wine, women and song are the reasons a typical American couple doesn’t accumulate $11 million? More likely, it seems to me, he believes that the average American is foolish enough to believe that. And he may well be right.
I’ve written the unique danger President Trump poses to the country because of his lack of character and his temperamental unfitness for high office. But what this Friday reminds us is that we face two big problems: the Republican Party has been dysfunctional for a long time. If you remember back to the debates about the Affordable Care Act, Congress held many hearings and debated the bill on the floor of both houses at length. And of course the main ideas of the ACA were Republican ideas that the Republicans decided to oppose for crass political reasons. What the tax bill shows better than anything else in recent memory is not just that the GOP has lost its way—that’s been clear for a long time now—but that there are no longer enough reasonable voices in the party to prevent it from taking actions that are bound to harm the country at the insistence of its donor class.
What I find particuarly baffling is the absurd disconnect between a tax bill that is estimated to increase the deficit by a trillion dollars or more and the idea that President Trump is “making America great again.” America’s greatness has, for me at least, always meant keeping the peace, through our military power, our active diplomacy, and our relationships with allies around the world; leading the world in the production of knowledge and culture as well as widgets; and exemplifying representative democracy and the rule of law at home and abroad. It’s hard to see how we afford to keep the peace when we give up a trillion dollars in revenue annually. It’s hard to see how we continue to lead the world in research and education when graduate students are going to need to include their tuition waivers as taxable income, and when college endowments are going to be taxed. I could go on. To be a great country, we require everyone, and especially the wealthy, to pay to support the public good. The message in this tax bill seems to be that we must protect old money already earned at the expense of future innovation and the future public good.
Our political system provides a mechanism for repairing the GOP. It’s called a shellacking. Republicans need to suffer a grievous electoral loss at all levels of government if the party is to be persuaded that its success depends on promoting the interests of the voters, not the interests of concentrated wealth. It seems to me there are two questions. Is that kind of outcome realistic in 2018 given the extreme gerrymandering in many states and other structural barriers to electoral change? And are the American people still capable of understanding their own interests and voting accordingly?
I don’t mean this as an endorsement of the Democratic Party. While the Republicans have been uniquely bad over the past several years, there is a lot that should concern us in the Democratic Party, too. Democrats are beholden to the donor class, and the social, economic and foreign policy views of part of the party hold their own risks for America. But saying “a pox on both their houses,” as too many voters did in the last election, is dangerously irrational, as the 2016 results show.