The GOP's tax bill, which the Senate plans to vote on today, looks like a big fat mess. It would raise taxes on lots of low- and middle-income families. It would slash spending on popular federal programs. It would add $1 trillion to the debt. It would close several popular loopholes and tax breaks. And it would throw health-care policy into upheaval, hamper state budgets, and threaten higher education to boot.
Why do all these things? Because the tax bill is really about one thing and one thing alone: transferring more wealth and power to the already wealthy and powerful. That is the animating concern of everything the Republicans have done this year. That is the stark truth at the heart of the GOP tax bill.
The legislation — which was derailed on Thursday night due to concerns about the deficit, leaving Senate Republicans scrambling to make adjustments — is built around a small collection of big cuts whose benefits would all flow overwhelmingly to the wealthy, by making rich- and business-friendly changes to the corporate profits tax, the treatment of pass-through income, the estate tax, and the alternative minimum tax.
Democrats have refused to sign up for such a flagrant giveaway to the rich, so the GOP has had to use reconciliation to try to get those changes through the Senate. But reconciliation requires that bills be deficit neutral after 10 years. That means Republicans had to find ways to increase revenue to balance out their tax cuts. The cynical strategy was always clear: Get the big tax cuts for the wealthy through, and then throw in whatever you have to to make the math work.
But even that "whatever you have to" has a clear tilt in favor of the privileged. Sure, the GOP plan increases the standard deduction, which helps the middle class — but in a complicated way thanks to all the other deductions the plan kills. Though the House and Senate bills affect health care in different ways, both are good for people who are healthy and young and well-off, and bad for people who are old and sick and poor. The way the Republicans go after higher education will make it harder for anyone who doesn't hail from the upper class to go to college. The change to how inflation is calculated will push everyone, even the poorest, into higher tax brackets faster. Eliminating or rolling back the state and local tax deduction will make it harder for states that actually care about helping the poor and investing in the public good to raise the tax revenue to do so.
Thanks to legislative pay-go rules, the tax bill could automatically trigger big cuts to Medicare and other welfare state programs. And it sure sounds like Republicans are gearing up to rediscover deficits again next legislative session, and use them as an excuse to further gut the social safety net.
The GOP claims its plan will help workers: Thanks to trickle-down economics, tax cuts for the wealthy will magically generate jobs and wages for the rest of us. Voila! Do Republican lawmakers actually believe this? Who knows.
What we do know, however, is that the entire Republican agenda is about giving more wealth and power to the already wealthy and powerful. This was the animating force behind the efforts to repeal and replace ObamaCare. The Trump administration's changes to financial regulation will make it easier for banks and lenders to loot the rest of us. The way the Republicans are cutting up labor law will allow more employers to increase their profit margins by exploiting their workers. Trump's attacks on environmental regulations will expand energy companies' bottom lines, while the poor and minorities will be the ones to most egregiously suffer the costs of an increasingly unstable climate and increases in pollution.
The Republican agenda is cynically coherent: Help businesses and rich people. The party has individual stories to defend these goals: Easing financial rules will free up credit! Environmental regulations hurt economic growth! Labor laws constrain job creation! But stack all the GOP's policies up next to each other, and suddenly the common theme snaps into focus: Protect and reinforce the people on the thrones, and keep everyone else in their place.