Detour To Candyland

[ Posted Monday, April 17th, 2017 – 16:27 UTC ]

During Easter weekend (appropriately), a groundswell seemed to appear among Republicans in Congress for what they're calling the "candy option" on tax reform. Like kids with chocolate-smeared faces on Easter morning, they are considering whether to propose a diet of all candy and nothing else. Which, to stretch the metaphor to its inevitable conclusion, is going to lead to a major tummyache in the end.

Here's the basic rundown from Axios, who seems to have broken the story:

As full-blown tax reform looks more and more like an unreachable stretch, there's increasing conversation on the Hill about what's being called a "candy option" -- all the goodies, with none of the pain.

That would mean lower personal and corporate rates, plus some limited repatriation, funded largely by deficit spending.

The Washington Post took a closer look at the ramifications of taking the train to Candyland:

To be clear, this is a fallback, not what congressional Republicans would prefer. But it's what I've been predicting. Faced with the complexity of sweeping tax reform and the difficulty of satisfying all the different interest groups and constituencies that have something to gain or lose and will thus be lobbying frenetically on the bill -- there's a reason Congress does this only once in a generation or so -- they'll throw in the towel and default to what they can agree on.

And what Republicans can agree on is cutting taxes for the wealthy and corporations. The kinds of reform that are more complex and that some Republicans but not others support, such as a border adjustment tax or the elimination of significant loopholes (each of which has its influential defenders), will just have to be put aside.

But doing that presents a couple of major political problems. The first is that Democrats will shout that Republicans are just bestowing a gift on the wealthy, which is what Democrats always say. They say this because it's true, and because it's extremely effective.

The problem for Republicans, however, won't be what Democrats are saying, it will (once again) be the battle within their own ranks that causes them the biggest stomach pains.

Comprehensive tax reform means different things to different Republicans. Putting that aside for the moment, there are two ways to pass a tax reform bill. The first would require Democratic help, because it would definitely mean breaking a filibuster in the Senate. The second is through budget reconciliation, which would mean only 50 votes in the Senate could pass it (with Mike Pence breaking the tie, if necessary). The big problem for Republicans with the second option is that any bill passed this way cannot increase the deficit beyond the next decade. So if the bill passed for the 2017 tax season, it couldn't increase the deficit starting in 2027, and beyond. George W. Bush passed both his tax cuts in this manner, so they disappeared after 10 years because they were not permanent. Permanently changing the tax code or passing any changes with long-term hikes in the annual deficit means getting Democrats on board and getting 60 votes.

But getting Democrats on board means having to negotiate with them and tone down conservative impulses just to slash taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Negotiating with Democrats means eating some vegetables before digging into the candy, in other words. So the reconciliation route is a lot more tempting for the GOP, even if they will have to sunset the bill after a decade. But even this is going to be tough for Republicans, because they all differ on what the objective of tax reform really should be.

Donald Trump was all over the map on how he'd reform taxes as a candidate (as he was on many other issues), so who really knows what the White House will be fighting for in the tax reform debate? The only real specific Trump ever was crystal clear on was getting rid of the carried interest loophole for hedge fund managers, but is he really going to draw a big line in the sand just to hike some very wealthy people's taxes? Or will this campaign promise go down the memory hole the way so many others have?

Paul Ryan has always been an adherent of tax reform being "revenue-neutral" which is a wonky way of saying some people are going to pay a lot more and some people are going to pay a lot less. Actually, to be strictly accurate, that should be "some people and/or some corporations" since corporate taxes are also on the table. To put it another way, there will be winners and there will be losers. This is guaranteed if the reforms are "revenue-neutral," since for the federal government to take in the same amount of money as before, it means whenever someone's taxes get cut, someone else's taxes are going to have to rise to match it.

I don't even personally see the point of "revenue-neutral" tax reform. Why go through all that hassle just to wind up with exactly the same amount of revenue? It's a mystery to me -- I mean, I can understand the ideological stance of either "cut taxes" or "raise more money and reduce the deficit," but going through the entire exercise without changing the bottom line seems kind of pointless, in a way. Maybe that's just me, though -- and I've certainly never claimed to be a macroeconomist.

The problem with any tax reform which either raises anyone's taxes or cuts anyone's "loopholes" is that there is a built-in constituency who is going to be against the idea. Say Republicans announced they'd be drastically cutting corporate tax rates, and furthermore that this would be paid for by eliminating the deduction homeowners claim for their mortgage interest. Every family that owns a house in America would instantly be against such a reform. This is but one example, but every single deduction or credit or other loophole (including the ones that benefit corporations) exists in the first place so that some particular group benefits -- and any affected group is going to be strongly against any change to their particular loophole.

This is the whole "picking winners and losers" problem. And this fight is really going to happen within the Republican caucus, once again. Moderates will balk at any tax hikes on the middle class and the Tea Party will probably throw a temper tantrum for some reason or another (it's what they do best, after all). All the while, the lobbyists that the rich can afford will be skulking around making sure their clients aren't the losers in the process in any way.

This is why Republicans are now considering just stuffing their faces with candy. One new tax idea has been floated -- a "border adjustment tax" otherwise known as a tariff for foreign goods -- but already some in the GOP ranks are strongly against the idea. It cuts against the "no new taxes" grain within the party, after all. The only thing all Republicans can really agree upon is that taxes need to be cut, and if most of those tax cuts go to the ultra-wealthy -- oh, excuse me, the "job creators" -- then that's totally acceptable because it will all magically trickle down one sunny day in the future.

This is the candy, at least for Republicans. The "tummyache" is the fact that doing this will explode the deficit. Cutting taxes costs money, period. No amount of "tax cuts pay for themselves" delusional notions can change this. The question is whether Republicans really want to have to go campaign in 2018 on: "We created huge deficits for the next decade so your boss can get another big tax cut!" The GOP has certainly done so before (those tax cuts passed under George W. Bush, for instance), so they might decide to do so again. But the mood of the country has changed since then, so it remains to be seen whether the voters will be impressed by this reasoning this time around.

The temptation for Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump is that they probably could pass a Candyland reform bill. They'd only need a bare majority in both houses, and perhaps enough candy could be tossed in to win over enough Republican votes to pass it (even the Tea Partiers). Negotiating a bill that created winners and losers would be a lot harder, and Ryan may never be able to bridge the differences within his own caucus in this regard. Which would lead to another spectacular failure of the House to pass anything (as we already saw on healthcare reform). And if the House fails just as miserably at reforming taxes as it did on reforming healthcare, then the voters (especially those who voted for Republicans to go to Congress) are quite likely not going to be very impressed. Republicans have been complaining for years how Democrats were the ones holding everything up in Washington, but with Republicans in full control of everything they can't even pass a bill through the House on anything? That's likely not going to go down very well with the voters. When the only other option to such a failure is to stuff as much candy into your mouth as you can, it might just be seen by congressional Republicans as a better option. What could possibly go wrong with a diet of candy for breakfast, after all?

-- Chris Weigant


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


9 Comments on “Detour To Candyland”

  1. [1] 
    neilm wrote:

    I think you are right - it is going to be candy time with a 10 year cut off.

    They'll buy off the "Freedom Caucus" with one at a time with individual give-aways until they have enough votes - it will be interesting to see how they react when they are faced with standing together and hoping that the rest of the caucus doesn't take a bribe or get to the front of the line. Ryan only needs to tell them that he only needs 1/2 of them to get the bill passed, and the first 1/2 that agree can get some candy and the rest get nothing.

    It could give Ryan a lever to split them permanently.

    The Democrats just need to stand and point "They're giving your boss a six figure tax cut and the rest of us are lucky if we get $500, plus they are running up the deficit".

    Should be entertaining.

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    neilm -

    If the GOP had any shame, the biggest problem for them would be the whole "running up the deficit" thing.

    Since they don't, who knows if their voters will pay attention or not?



  3. [3] 
    neilm wrote:

    So much for 45's economy:

    Wall St. is learning the hard way that 45 is great at promising things, but can't deliver - President Obama had him nailed - he is just a carnival barker.

    Now with PM May calling a snap election, I'm wondering if 2017 could be the year of undoing:

    1. Undo Brexit with a strong mandate from the Brits
    2. Impeach 45 as even the Republicans lose patience with him

    In fact the Republicans don't even need to impeach 45, they just need to start subpoenaing his business documents, starting with his tax returns and any loans from non-American citizens of financial institutions and he'll run back under the stone he crawled out of. Pence and Sessions will then go all antediluvian on us and the Republicans are toast for a generation.

  4. [4] 
    TheStig wrote:


    I think you make a good case that Trump, Ryan and McConnell will opt for Candyland. That said, I'm going to Red Team your theory.

    The incentive for Trump is he can fulfill some campaign promises: infrastructure, military procurement and even the wall are promises that can be pitched as "job creation" to the lunch bucket electorate and as pork o'rama to big contractors.

    The incentive for Ryan and McConnell is they finally accomplish some legislating, which they have not been particularly good at to date.

    There are obvious dangers though: big infrastructure, military and wall are going to ramp up fairly slowly, won't produce all that many jobs, and most of the jobs directly related to the projects are going to go to highly skilled workers - not the rust bucket rural coalition created by Trump. If you work at Wendy's you'll probably still be working at Wendy's, but maybe more hrs.

    There is also the danger of deficit induced inflation, which the US hasn't seen in a while and which may eat up most, all or more than all of the trickle down benefits to low skilled and low demand participants in the workforce. This could come back to bite Trump, Ryan and McConnell in their next elections. In keeping with the infrastructure theme, Candyland could prove a bridge too far.

    Another danger lurking in Candyland is just pure love of ideological purity-and the fear of an ideologically driven primary election opponent. I think politicians are more cautious than I've seen them. Compromise or going along to get along are perceived as risky politics. Cable news and Twitter are nasty enforcers.

    So, there you have it, my counter theory. I'm no macro economist either. Trump on the other hand shows every sign of becoming a macro economist. I notice his third chin is nearing completion and his rump wing is getting more impressive every day.

    "Golf is not exercise unless you carry your caddie." - attributed to Eisenhower's cardiologist.

    "The man ate bacon at every meal... you... you can't do that!"- City Slickers

  5. [5] 
    John M wrote:

    I don't think tax reform is going anywhere. I don't even think passing a lot of candyland tax breaks is going to be very possible.

    Remember, a lot of the tea party and conservative Republicans were elected specifically on REDUCING the deficit and not increasing it. That was supposed to be the priority even over reduced taxes.

    Plus, there is a much more important deadline looming, onrushing from the distance like locomotive headlights. Some kind of continuing budget resolution MUST be passed by April 29 in order to avoid a government shutdown, and it can't be done without Democratic votes. Unless of course the Republicans can all stick together and do away with the last remaining filibuster in the Senate, the one on legislation.

    I agree though it will be interesting to see what voters in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia do during the next couple of election cycles, when they realize that Trump's campaign promises were empty ones and he really can't bring coal field jobs back no matter what he does, and Republicans only make the opioid crisis in their midst even worse by making healthcare even more expensive and less available to the working poor and unemployed.

  6. [6] 
    LeaningBlue wrote:

    CW -

    You hit a nail on the head with your example of mortgage interest deduction. The tax code is little beyond codification of entitlements to those in one situation or another. I think Pat Buchanan is attributed with the aphorism that an entitlement, once extended, can't ever be revoked.

    It may be, as Krauthammer remarked during health care, that is the genius of the left. So or not, the curse of the MovementCons is that they can't deliver revenue neutral --let alone deficit reducing-- tax entitlements to the Chamber-of-C or multinational constituencies unless they can rip off the revenue from those in middle or lower class circumstances either by frog-boiling or stealth.

    Without a big head start on pulling those off via health care, and thanks in large part to candidate Trump's populism and promises, that looks damned near impossible right now.

  7. [7] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    The question is whether Republicans really want to have to go campaign in 2018 on: "We created huge deficits for the next decade so your boss can get another big tax cut!"

    It seems that the numbers guys (including Ryan) had been sort of banking on using 'savings' from gutting healthcare to pay for the bulk of their tax cut, and are urging Trump to try for another bite at that apple. Strangely, they think it would be easier to sell a tax cut with funds stolen from sick people to the Freedom Caucus, and worse, they're probably correct.

  8. [8] 
    neilm wrote:

    Regarding the mortgage interest tax relief - this was a tax break that existed in the U.K. in the 1980's. Maggie got rid of it very easily.

    First she limited the total amount to 30K pounds per person for several years (about $100K in today's money), so a married couple had $200K of mortgage relief. Then she dropped it to $100K per property for a few more years, then phased it out entirely for new mortgages - old mortgages were grandfathered in as the rules applied when they were written.

    Worked a charm - there was an impact on property prices, but it happened in 2-3 small steps, and with property prices rising, it was more of a leveling off than a drop in value.

  9. [9] 
    neilm wrote:

    We could easily eliminate mortgage tax relief over here - set the top amount at $300K - most people would be fine. Then never increase the amount and let inflation do its work - after 10 years $300K -> $250K in real terms, and after 30 years it would be $150K.

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