Opinion

The Great Republican Tax Heist of 2017

Republicans are enriching themselves by looting the country

Republicans finally rammed their tax bill through the House and the Senate on Tuesday. And while they still need to go through the motions with one last House vote today, the game is up. This wretched piece of economic policy designed almost solely to transfer income and wealth to the very top of the income ladder is about to become law. As Greg Sargent shows, a large majority of the country will face tax hikes by 2027 — while over nine-tenths of the top 0.1 percent will get a tax cut averaging over $200,000.

So it's not too surprising that the bill is horrendously unpopular. But because of that unpopularity (and its explosion of the deficit), Republicans had to resort to outright bribery to get it through. Anyone with a lingering shred of conscience, like Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), are getting personal tax breaks, while others like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan are reportedly going to resign in advance of public backlash.

These Republican hogs are gorging themselves at the public trough — and unlike in years past, this time ordinary voters aren't getting even a few scraps.

In his book Political Order and Political Decay, Francis Fukuyama usefully distinguishes two types of political corruption. On the one hand, there is traditional patronage politics, where a group of insiders doles out jobs and benefits to big swathes of a population in return for votes — think Tammany Hall in New York City or the Daley operation in Chicago. Fukuyama notes that while this sort of corruption can have bad consequences in terms of state effectiveness, it also can be a precursor to a professionalized democratic welfare state. Al Smith, who came up in New York politics as a Tammany man, spent much of his time as governor setting up benefit programs based on need and given out to every eligible person, not just Democratic voters.

On the other hand, there is personal corruption, where state officials simply take money for themselves — either through corrupt policy or straight-up theft. Fukuyama argues (for obvious reasons) that this is much, much worse than patronage politics. There is no possible justification for it in terms of state development or any other metric. It's just looting.

During the passage of ObamaCare, Republicans worked themselves into a spittle-flecked frenzy over a minor instance of patronage politics: a proposed small increase in Medicaid benefits for Nebraskans to win the vote of Sen. Ben Nelson (D). They called it the "Cornhusker Kickback," and it was subsequently taken out of the final bill. (Of course, many conservatives failed to notice the removal, and the supposed corruption became part of the conservative firmament of email forwards and conspiracy websites.)

The Nebraska initiative maybe could have just barely qualified as the first type of corruption, though a tiny moral lapse at best with genuine positive benefits for the residents of Nebraska.

Contrast that with various looting provisions uncovered by David Sirota and his team at The International Business Times. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) slipped a benefit for investors in oil and gas "master limited partnerships" into the bill, which would directly benefit Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) as well as several House Republicans.

Worse still is the "Corker Kickback," a new tax cut for real estate shell companies that Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) stuck into the bill. This would benefit 14 Republican senators who own up to $105 million in such real estate assets, including Hatch himself and Corker, who voted against the first iteration of the bill — as well as Corker's top aide.

Finally, of course, these sort of real estate companies are a major part of President Trump's portfolio — because he, unlike every previous president, has refused to meaningfully divest from his investments. We can't say how much, because he refuses to release his tax returns, but that fact alone suggests the likely personal benefits for the president are enormous.

The tax bill is not just a massive payout to corporations and the idle rich. It is now a direct, personal bribe of Republican members of Congress and the Republican president, executed through the tax code. Cornyn straight-up admitted that the point of his provision was to round up votes. In terms of democratic ethics, it is no different from border guards who jack up passing travelers for bribes — just spread out over the whole population.

It seems likely to work, for now. But this is a reflection of the way ultra-concentrated wealth and fevered propaganda has led to the utter moral debasement of the Republican Party.

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