Many senators raised concerns about rushing the legislative process for the Senate’s version of the Republican tax bill, exemplified by a barely legible handwritten amendment on an almost 500-page bill distributed only hours before the vote. But there are other parliamentary failures that have contributed even more greatly to the damage this bill will likely do: the misuse of the budget reconciliation process that allows for an expedited consideration of spending bills and the reliance on a 10-year budget score to determine eligibility for that process.
For poor and lower middle-class taxpayers, the bill will mean regressive tax hikes after a few years.
While the bill would make a corporate tax rate cut permanent, tax cuts for individuals decrease over the 10-year budget window of the bill. For poor and lower middle-class taxpayers, the bill will mean regressive tax hikes after a few years. Republican lawmakers deserve blame for valuing the wishes of multinational companies above the needs of families, but they are not gleeful about phasing out tax cuts. That approach was necessitated by their (also blameworthy) decision to pass this bill through the reconciliation process that prevents a filibuster and prevents the need to win any Democratic votes.
The present bill is not the first time that the trick of sunsetting tax cuts has been employed. The most famous previous instances were George W. Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, timed to expire in 2010 to avoid the “Byrd rule” prohibition on a reconciliation measure that increased the deficit beyond the budget window. In 2012, during the “fiscal cliff” and its related debt-ceiling showdowns, those tax cuts were made permanent for taxpayers making less than $400,000 ($450,000 for couples) but allowed to expire for those making more. While that episode was no more laudable than the present bill as a legislative endeavor, it at least resulted in a less regressive outcome than what the United States faces now.
The reconciliation process and the Byrd rule were originally designed to protect the budgetary process from legislative gamesmanship aimed at extraneous issues. It is now time to admit that they no longer serve that purpose; instead, they incentivize lawmakers to design legislative structures for deliberate and dangerous collapse before they reach those procedural limits. American politics has more than enough truly intractable problems without our legislators giving themselves artificial reasons to build in more.
Eliminating the reconciliation process or the Byrd rule likely would not have produced a morally better tax bill from the current Congress. Even the few reasonable ideas buried within the current bill, such as an increase to the standard deduction, are still outweighed by the focus on cutting taxes for the already wealthy. But we could have had a clearer debate both about the tax cuts themselves and their impact on the federal debt if they were not clouded by sunsetting provisions. The American people deserve to hear arguments about how to pay for what our lawmakers propose to do, not just how to smuggle a bad bill through Congress.