When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told her supporters in 2010 that Democrats would have to pass health care reform “so that you can find out what is in it,” she wasn’t confessing a plot to deceive voters, but rephrasing a familiar maxim that good policy makes for good politics. When the Affordable Care Act’s benefits became tangible, in other words, the doomsaying spin and lies about it would be discredited.
The maxim is often false, as Democrats would learn. But it speaks to the powerful idea that when lawmakers improve people’s lives, the political part of being an elected official takes care of itself.
If Republicans believed half of what they claim to believe about their own tax policy—that it will be an engine of economic growth and higher wages; that it will at least partially pay for itself—they would be as confident of the fight ahead as Pelosi was seven and a half years ago.
Instead, before they unveiled the discussion draft of their regressive tax cut bill, we learned that the plan is intentionally incomplete because a complete version would be indefensible.
As currently written, it includes phase-ins and phase-outs that limit the apparent scope and cost of the tax cuts. But according to the New York Times, these provisions are intended “[as] a place holder that would allow Republican leaders to work out the details of a new set of revenue-raisers that would be inserted in the bill before the full House votes on it.”
Republicans know what they want their tax policy to do, it turns out, but they also know that they can’t disclose their intentions to voters, because voers will not like what they see. The plan is to increase taxes on millions of working people to finance permanent corporate tax cuts, and the eventual repeal of the estate tax for people like Ivanka Trump. And to shepherd it into law, they are reviving the same Secret-Bill Strategy they adopted unsuccessfully when they attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
What Republicans believe to be good policy, they also quite clearly understand to be bad politics. But if these changes to the tax code genuinely did swell a tide that would lift all boats, they would have nothing to fear. Their conduct is an occasion for us to question what it is about regressive tax policy that appeals to them so much, and how credulous we should be when they claim to be acting in the interests of all Americans.
Writing for Vox.com last week, Matthew Yglesias credited Republicans with “firmly believ[ing] that tax cuts for the very rich will be a boon to the whole economy,” and, “very sincerely believ[ing] that adopting more investor-friendly policies will benefit everyone in the long run.”
Once upon a time, I would have agreed. But I no longer do. We can’t know what the people who plan to vote for the GOP tax cut bill believe in their hearts, but we do know a fair bit about recent history.
We know we’re 16 years out from the first round of regressive Bush tax cuts, 14 years out from the second round of regressive Bush tax cuts, and 10 years out from those tax cuts failing to secure substantial near-term or long-term growth. After that, the entire economy collapsed. We’re five years out from the 2012 election, which Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan lost on a platform of stigmatizing people who don’t make enough money to pay federal income taxes. We’re four years out from a substantial tax increase (thanks, Obama) that has accompanied a steady economic recovery. We’re two years out from Kansas’ experiment with regressive tax cuts that bottomed out the state’s revenue base and left its finances in ruins. We’re one year out from Trump winning the election despite lying constantly, and one month out from donors threatening to cut Republicans off if they don’t make haste with tax cuts.
There is literally nothing in the recent historical record to undergird the claim that supply-side tax policy is a magical economic elixir. And there’s nothing to suggest Republicans are deluded about this either—after all, even in this golden age of Trumpian deception, Republicans don’t go around gaslighting reporters about the economic miracle in Kansas, or the George W. Bush boom. That doesn’t mean Republicans are knowingly propagating what they believe to be bad policy, but that the things they like about it aren’t strictly economic or populist in nature, and that they use economic and populist tropes to sell policy they like for other reasons.
Or at least, that’s what we should assume based upon what has transpired in reality. Many Republicans appear to support regressive tax policy for deeply held moral reasons. Donors are greedy people who want more money because having lots of money is fun. But Paul Ryan’s worldview is one in which rich people are producers, who should be allowed to keep as much money as possible as an inducement to produce more, and poor people are dependents, who should be deprived of as much money as possible as an inducement to work harder. Doing the opposite might not cause the economy to stall, but in Ryan’s mind it’s still the wrong thing to do.
When he and other Republicans cloak that worldview in the language of broadly shared economic prosperity, they may be engaging in a bit of motivated reasoning. They may be telling calculated lies. But they’re not telling empirical truth, and they know it. If they believed what they were saying, they would have introduced their bill proudly and told the public, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”