There’s no question that the procedures under which Republican senators passed their tax bill in the wee hours of Saturday morning were irresponsible. It’s worth taking a quick look at what that means.
That it was passed after midnight may be a fun symbolic fact, but it’s no big deal.
That the bill distributed just hours before the final vote contained several new parts that were handwritten rather than typed out properly also may be an easy target, but it isn’t really a big deal.
It’s not at all a bad thing that the bill was renegotiated after the committee stage, with the Senate majority leader working out details in private. That’s been how most major bills have reached the Senate floor for some time now.
And I’m willing to defend in principle log-rolling deals that were made with Republican senators to retain their votes, such as Lisa Murkowski’s insistence on including a provision to allow drilling on currently off-limits lands.
All of these things are basically legislating as usual, even if in this case they hint at other problems.
I have mixed feelings about the lack of committee hearings on the specific bills that the House and Senate considered. Republicans have held hearings on the general topic of tax reform, this year and previously. And hearings can be fairly meaningless anyway. On the other hand, what eventually was developed wasn’t really tax reform, so it’s not clear how relevant the hearings they held really were. It’s also important for Congress to have some process for hearing from a wide range of interests and experts, and formal hearings are a good way to do it, even when they ignore the results.
If anyone is complaining about actually reading the bill, that one would be silly as well. Members generally don’t read bills, and there’s no reason for them to do so. As far as the bill containing gimmicks to game the scoring process? That’s very serious mainly for those who care about federal budget deficits, and it’s pretty clear that the Republicans who supported this large tax cut didn’t care about its effect on the federal budget.
Now the really bad.
The strictly partisan drafting and passage of the bill was highly unusual. The obvious comparison is to the Affordable Care Act in 2009, but Democrats really did try hard to entice some Republicans to join their efforts, and they did accept some Republican amendments during committee consideration. Republicans in 2001 and 2003 similarly tried to get Democratic support for their tax bills. Republicans this time around hardly even pretended to be interested in winning the votes of moderate Democrats, let alone hold any serious substantive sessions with them.
There’s simply no excuse for the rushed schedule. This is major legislation, affecting an enormous number of people in countless ways, and it’s unlikely that even the authors really know what’s in the bill the Senate passed. Rank-and-file Republicans simply had to trust leadership; Democrats were not given a reasonable amount of time to learn what they were opposing. It’s pretty straightforward: The final wording should have been available — and public — before floor debate began.
That’s not the only problem with the frenzied schedule Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the Republicans chose. We’re already seeing evidence that a lot of very sloppy drafting went into getting this thing done as quickly as possible. If the House winds up simply accepting what the Senate passed, it’s very likely that more and more of these kinds of errors will be discovered. No legislation is ever perfectly drafted, but something this big going through this quickly without any kind of quality control just invites problems. The result is likely to be an absolute bonanza for tax lawyers and the tax-preparation business — in other words, exactly the opposite of the simplification that was a big part of the justification for the whole project to begin with.
It really matters, too, that Republicans didn’t leave time for the experts, including Congress’s in-house experts at the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation, to do their jobs with sufficient time for senators to then take it into consideration (that Republicans simply ignored what the experts were telling them isn’t really a procedural flaw, but it hardly helped things). Those professionals did rush estimates of the effects of the legislation, but given how many major changes were made so late, it’s hard to believe that those estimates are as reliable as they would normally be.
What’s really bad about all of this is that there was no particular reason to rush it. Yes, the bill polls badly, but there’s no magical “election year” elixir that makes a bill passed in February or March any more electorally toxic than one passed in December.
Republicans really, really want to cut taxes on the wealthy. Many of them almost certainly sincerely believe that doing so will create enormous economic growth. They won the White House as well as House and Senate majorities, so that’s what they’re going to try to do. But the procedures they’re using compromise democratic legitimacy while also risking enormous unintended consequences, while also further weakening Congress as an institution. It’s a disgrace.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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