Playing politics with America’s money is a dangerous game

Playing politics with America’s money is a dangerous game
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During my 16 years as a member of Congress, I would frequently visit a school to explain the functions (and dysfunctions) of the House. I usually boiled it down to: “Congress debates who gets what, when.” 

No debate will better clarify that proposition than the one over tax reform. In fact, tax legislation is Washington’s “mother of all choices.” Irrelevancies like the president’s annual budget, congressional budget resolutions and committee authorizations are like pages of the Congressional Record: rarely read and quickly discarded. The tax code, on the other hand, enshrines “who gets what when.” It picks winners and losers; it fixes specific costs and benefits to virtually every economic behavior in society. 

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And that’s why the upcoming tax debate will make the GOP’s doomed and reckless strategy to repeal ObamaCare look like a game of Go Fish. The policy and political stakes are infinitely higher; the devil is in the details. And by devil, I mean the searing flames of a super PAC ad designed to condemn a congressional soul to electoral purgatory, specifically, the addition of “former” to the title “member of Congress.” 

 

The media will pronounce the bill dead and reincarnated and dead again. In the search for the sweet spot of 218 House votes and 50 Senate votes (with a tie-breaking assist from the vice president), the deeper the debate dives, the more votes it could drive away. In this case, all politics is local. 

For example, Republicans from the SALT states (not the condiment, but areas with high state and local taxes) are being induced with a new proposal for tax credits in lieu of federal tax deductions. Even if a case can be made that it works on paper and even as math (and I’m doubtful that it can), the complexity of the proposal won’t stop that brutal “kitchen table” ad featuring a hard-working middle-class family, where Mom turns to the camera and forlornly asks: “Why did you take away my deduction and raise my taxes, Congressman [fill in the blank with one of about 40 names]?” How do I know? I wrote a few of those ads when I chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. 

Of course, we’re hearing the usual Capitol Hill harmony about bipartisanship. But Republicans will be singing solo. The Senate has geared up for a filibuster-proof vote. In the House, Democratic Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMoulton drops out of presidential race after struggling to gain traction Conservatives push Trump tariff relief over payroll tax cuts Democrats press FBI, DHS on response to white supremacist violence MORE, a shrewd strategist, has reportedly told her caucus that their majority may depend on another Republican legislative failure.

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The GOP may be able to pick off a handful of Democrats and try calling it “bipartisan.” But that’s like my beloved Mets using Tom Nito (hit .300) to call themselves the Dodgers. Or the Astros. They’re still the Mets. 

That’s the political reality. 

Still, I’m a political novelist who loves a good fantasy. So here’s what real bipartisan tax reform compromise might look like. 

First, it would skew heavily to rebuilding the middle class, whose expectations of mobility have flat-lined. Reform that reignites that mobility should include, to name a few ideas, tax credits to boost stagnant earnings; targeted incentives to keep companies in America; and repatriating assets in exchange for major job-creating, paycheck-boosting infrastructure investments. 

Second, it would eliminate and phase out current tax perks that don’t expand the middle class but instead secure the footing of those at the very top. I happen to be writing this on a commercial flight from New York to Boston (Flight 6058, for fact checkers). It’s a full flight (just downgraded) and 30 minutes late. Passengers are cramming their luggage into inadequate overhead space; harried flight attendants are urging cooperation. Meanwhile, I read a recent Bloomberg analysis that private jets generate a disproportionate fraction of airline taxes because they’re excused from the types of taxes and fees that commercial airlines and passengers pay. Any tax reform that continues forcing a middle-class, middle-seat economy passenger to subsidize a private flight will deflect considerable Democratic support.  

The political consequences of tax reform won’t be defined by the traditional confines of partisan politics. The priorities and choices in this bill will transcend party affiliation, sweeping across a fertile populism that’s decreasingly allegiant to party registration. A tax reform bill that sticks the bill for pork and perks on the middle class is a recipe for economic disaster and political disruption in the midterms. It may turn “who gets what, when” into “who gets defeated next year?”

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. His next novel, “Big Guns,” will be published in April 2018.