Politics & Policy

The Downward Spiral

President Trump with Senator John Barasso (left) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill, November 28, 2017. (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
The unseemly shenanigans behind the tax cut

Presidents really only get to do one big thing, or maybe two. Abraham Lincoln saved the Union. Franklin Roosevelt got his New Deal and joined the war against Adolf Hitler. Lyndon Johnson expanded the welfare state and signed into law a landmark civil-rights bill. George W. Bush wanted to be a school-reformer and economy-modernizer, but instead he was obliged to spend his presidency playing Whac-A-Mole with al-Qaeda and its allies.

Barack Obama’s one big thing was moving the United States toward a more European model of health care, one in which the federal government would take a stronger and much more direct role. It isn’t that he didn’t know what he wanted: While his heart’s own true desire is a government health-care monopoly (“I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal-health-care program,” etc.) he also believed that transitioning to such a program all at once would be disruptive, and so he backed what turned out to be an incompetent attempt at adapting a Swiss-style system of mandates, subsidies, and price controls to American conditions. As a political matter, he’d have signed a four-inch-thick stack of paper containing nothing but endless repetitions of the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!” so long as Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi got it to his desk with the words “Health-Care Reform” on the title page.

His eight years in office will be remembered as a failure and a great lost opportunity, not least of which because his one big thing, the Affordable Care Act, was such a dog’s breakfast of a bill that it immediately began to unravel. Parts of it conflicted with other laws and with the Constitution. Its underlying economic architecture is a mess, which resulted in substantially higher health-insurance costs for many Americans and fewer choices for many more. Its mandate that individuals buy insurance — necessary to the function of insurance markets under the preexisting-conditions rule imposed by the ACA — was toothless.

That mandate is slated to be repealed as part of the Republican tax-cut bill. A little irony in that: The mandate was an unconstitutional misapplication of congressional powers under the commerce clause, but Chief Justice John Roberts and his Supreme Court colleagues went to extraordinary lengths to find that the mandate could be instead understood as a constitutional application of Congress’s taxing power, thus saving Obamacare’s constitutional bacon. If we are to take serious the risible fiction that the Affordable Care Act was really at its heart a tax bill, then repealing the mandate in another tax bill is appropriate.

But Republicans ought not spend too much time savoring that irony. In their tax bill, they have repeated virtually all of the major procedural sins of the Affordable Care Act: the lack of regular order, the reliance on ridiculous budgeting shenanigans, the “we have to pass the bill in order to find out what’s in it” approach to lining up votes behind legislation nobody had read, which was still being amended well into the evening — “under cover of darkness,” as they like to say in Washington — sometimes with notes scribbled in the margins. And, of course, the tax bill was passed on a party-line vote, or near to it: Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee voted against the bill.

A lot of fun stuff was jammed in there at the end. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas put in a provision that would allow parents to use tax-advantaged college-savings accounts to pay for K–12 tuition at private schools and for some expenses related to home-schooling. That’s a good idea.

But I wonder how long any of this will last.

President Donald Trump desperately needed a win in his first year in office after having failed to deliver on such big-ticket campaign promises as repealing the Affordable Care Act and replacing it with a more consumer-oriented alternative, building a border wall and coercing the Mexicans into paying for it, and reordering our trade relations with the world. The Senate vote came on the day Michael Flynn, his former national-security adviser, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian authorities, a question that is likely to continue haunting the administration. The president’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, is said to be the next target of the investigation.

The Affordable Care Act began coming undone the second it was signed; this tax plan, created in much the same way, may very well suffer the same fate.

Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer, one of the sillier figures in American politics, said that the vote on the tax bill would constitute a “dramatic turning point in a downward spiral for the Republicans.” Well. Who knows what 2018 holds for the GOP, but the results of the last several elections — which have seen Democratic ranks decimated in Congress and in the states and the inevitable Hillary Rodham Clinton presidency derailed by a daft game-show host commanding his legions from his seat upon a gold-plated toilet — do not suggest that it is the Republican party that is moribund. If anything, Schumer should be sobered that his party has had its head handed to it by a bunch of yokels capable of nominating and electing Donald Trump.

Pendulums swing. But when and how fast, no one knows.

The downward spiral here isn’t tracing the decline of the Republican party but the descent of Congress, which, from the Affordable Care Act to the new tax-cut bill, has shown itself incapable of proceeding according to regular order, of conducting its business in a fashion befitting the legislature of the most powerful nation in the history of human affairs, and of forging bipartisan compromises — which are desirable not because bipartisanship and compromise are virtuous but because achieving broad political buy-in is the only way to produce stable and long-lasting policy settlements. The Affordable Care Act began coming undone the second it was signed; this tax plan, created in much the same way, may very well suffer the same fate. Whatever the corporate tax rate is when Trump signs the tax bill, it is unlikely that it will stay there for very long if Democrats come back into the majority in Congress. And who believes that Republican congressional majorities are destined to be eternal?

The Republicans are very lucky that the only practical alternative to them at the moment is the Democrats. The Democrats are lucky in precisely the same way.

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