With tax reform, the GOP Senate has the House held hostage

With tax reform, the GOP Senate has the House held hostage
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If the Republicans’ current tax reform effort fails, the cause will not be Democratic intransigence, confounding legislative procedures, or an erratic president, but a steady 30-year shift in the way the two parties are represented in the Senate. Republicans’ failure to navigate the altered landscape has yielded a problematic bill and placed vulnerable House Republicans on the firing line.

The easiest way to understand the differences between 1986, when the last tax reform bill was enacted, and 2017 is to look at the changes in the composition of the Senate Finance Committee.

The 1986 version of the committee was chaired by a West Coast senator who was a leading proponent of abortion rights. The majority side also included a steadfastly pro-choice senator from New England.

On the minority side, the two most senior senators represented southern states dominated by oil and gas interests.

Nothing remarkable about any of that by today’s standards, except for the fact that the two coastal pro-choice stalwarts were Republicans, and the two extractive industry champions were Democrats.

Fast forward to 2017. The Republican and Democratic rosters of today’s Finance Committee reflect separate and distinct partisan realities.

Collaboration was possible in 1986 not simply because the Finance Committee included liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, but because the two sides, emblematic of the Senate as a whole, were ideologically scrambled. The 11 Republicans included four from blue states, four from red, and three from purple.  The nine Democrats included five from red states and four from blue.

This scrambling of partisan identities meant that some Republicans had more in common with Democrats and vice-versa. Geography, seniority, and even life experience could outweigh party membership. Senators crossed party lines to organize hearings, draft legislation, and socialize. Today, senators of each party face their counterparts like East German border guards staring down their West German cousins over a barbed wire fence.

A Republican-only drafting process isn’t undesirable because partisanship is innately unwholesome, but because it generates legislation that is drawn only to satisfy a narrow section of the population. That may work in other policy areas — even in health care reform, where 90 percent of Americans get their insurance outside the ObamaCare exchanges — but it can’t succeed in rewriting the tax code, which will immediately affect virtually every man, woman and child in the United States.

That’s a problem for Republicans. The legislative effect is immediately obvious — it’s a terrible bill. The political effect will be no less dramatic.

There’s a kind of hardball logic behind the red state v. blue state map of America. The president gathered his electoral votes state by state, not nationally, and not by congressional districts. Senators share this perspective — only their statewide totals matter. Deep blue states, like California, Illinois, New York and New Jersey, are ignored by the White House and the Senate.

This attitude may not hurt the president or most incumbent Republican senators, but it will prove fatal to the careers of many GOP congressmen who represent fading red enclaves in vibrantly blue states. You can shift a greater part of the tax burden to those states, but you can’t surgically carve out red districts. Republican members from red states are hostages whose own party would rather sacrifice than rescue them.

Deductions for state and local tax payments are in Republicans’ sights. This is a body blow for middle-class taxpayers in high-tax states like California, New Jersey and New York. The president isn’t losing any sleep over this inequity, and neither is the Senate GOP caucus. Shifting more of the tax burden to blue states is likely to please the angry and restless voters that deliver southern and Midwestern states to Republicans.

But these big blue states have plenty of tenuously held Republican House seats. California, New Jersey and New York have 28 GOP representatives in the House. Seventeen of these Republicans won with 60 percent or less in 2016. A net loss of 24 House seats would consign the Republicans to the minority. If the 2017 election results are any indication, those 17 seats were on the verge of flipping even before the Republican tax bills were released.

Given the composition of the 1986 Finance Committee, a red state-only tax reform bill would’ve been inconceivable. Not because the senators of that era represented a bygone ideal of civic virtue, but because the mixing of parties and ideologies on both sides served as a fail-safe against the passage of bills that affected every American but disfavored only one party’s favored states.

The wholly partisan tax reform bill pieced together by Senate Republicans is a predictable product of partisan division. But the impact of today’s Republican caucus on the tax reform bill may be much less significant than the impact of the tax reform bill on tomorrow’s Republican caucus.

Drew Littman is policy director with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. From 2009‒2011, Littman served as Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenPolitical world mourns loss of comedian Jerry Stiller Maher to Tara Reade on timing of sexual assault allegation: 'Why wait until Biden is our only hope?' Democrats begin to confront Biden allegations MORE’s (D-Minn.) chief of staff.