House Considers Actually Doing Something

[ Posted Tuesday, January 30th, 2024 – 17:10 UTC ]

Can the Republican House get anything at all done? That is a rather open question, seeing as how so far they haven't done much -- this has been the least productive Congress in at least the last half-century, maybe even more. And they've already unceremoniously booted out one speaker (which was unprecedented in American history) and they could easily decide to do so again. Which is why the next couple of weeks could be instructive.

There are three big issues facing Speaker Mike Johnson right now (well, there are more than three, but there are three that could actually get voted on in the next few weeks or so). The first is passing a budget, but they've punted that can down the road all the way to March, so while this is the biggest item on his "to do" list, it will also undoubtedly be the slowest-moving one. The second is the possibility of a bill coming over from the Senate which would make border/immigration policy changes as well as provide military aid to both Ukraine and Israel. It is still an open question whether any such bill can make it through the Senate at this point, since they still haven't publicly released a draft of it (nobody's sure exactly what border policy changes will be in it) and since Donald Trump has now come out strongly against it, sight unseen. So we'll have to see what the Senate winds up doing before this becomes an issue for the House.

The third could be more immediate. A proposed tax bill could be voted on within the next few days or weeks, but it's already facing opposition from more than one direction. I wrote about this bill in detail when it was first proposed a few weeks ago, but it now appears close to actually getting a floor vote. It was worked out between the Republican chair of the House tax-writing committee and his counterpart in the Senate, a Democrat. So it's a bipartisan effort already, and it certainly makes sense for the House to take it up first.

The bill is a compromise, between something Democrats want and something Republicans want. It is actually paid for, by ending a COVID-era program that didn't work very well. But because it is a compromise, it's not going to satisfy everyone on either side of the aisle.

The Democrats will get an expansion of the Child Tax Credit, while Republicans will get some business tax breaks that they want. Both get roughly an equal amount of money, so it's not lopsided or anything. But it's already drawing heat from a number of different directions on the Republican side, while some Democrats are grumbling that it doesn't go far enough.

The Child Tax Credit is a tax credit (obviously) that benefits people who have underage children. It was expanded greatly during the COVID pandemic, which lifted millions of families out of poverty and reduced child poverty by half -- an astounding result in such a short period of time. But then that program ended abruptly, so it returned to pre-COVID levels. What's being proposed now is nowhere near as generous -- it would only directly affect lower-income families, who would be eligible for a larger credit than they now qualify for, but would leave the overall Child Tax Credit upper limit unchanged. To put this another way: poorer families would get slightly more money, while most middle-class and all wealthy families wouldn't see any change. Democrats (well, most of them not named "Joe Manchin") have been fighting to bring back the full C.T.C. levels from the COVID program, and some of them in the House see this current effort as woefully inadequate. Whether they'll actually vote against it or not is an open question though, since in the end most Democrats will probably support any increase, no matter how incremental.

Over on the Republican side, there are multiple groups who are currently against the new tax bill. The first are those that are just cold-hearted. They don't want to "massively increase welfare." They are happy seeing huge tax benefits go to large corporations but get up on some moral high horse when any tax benefits are proposed for hardworking American families. That's really it in a nutshell.

There's another group arguing for their own pet tax issue. Under Trump, the Republicans in Congress passed a measure that was intentionally written to punish states that have high real-estate prices and also have high state or local taxes. Which, for the most part, are all blue states -- like California and New York. But the Republicans won back control of the House the last time around by an unexpectedly strong performance in a number of New York House districts. And the members from these districts are arguing hard for a change in the way federal taxes treat "SALT" -- "State And Local Taxes." Many Democrats would also like to see these changes made, it bears mentioning. The New York Republicans are now threatening to possibly gum up the works if they don't get some SALT relief in the bill.

A third group of Republicans is just miffed at the way this bill will likely pass (if it ever even gets a vote). This is a technical parliamentarian thing with the House rules at the center of it. In normal times, any bill about to hit the House floor first gets a vote in the Rules Committee and then a floor vote of the whole House. This sets up a "rule" for debating and voting on that bill. Normally what happens is that the majority party unanimously votes to advance the rule (both in the committee and on the floor), and then the bill itself gets debated. But the Freedom Caucus has been throwing hissy fits and tantrums by denying their own speaker the votes he needs to get his preferred bills to the floor.

The tax bill would likely get shot down in the same way, if Speaker Johnson sent it through the Rules Committee. But there's a parliamentary loophole -- a bill can move directly to the floor with a two-thirds vote of the entire chamber, bypassing the rules committee and the need to pass an individual rule for the bill. This "suspension of the rules" has already been used to pass the necessary budget fixes to avoid government shutdowns. With virtually all Democrats voting for such bills as well as enough Republicans to clear the two-thirds barrier, necessary bills get through. That could easily work with this tax bill too -- which absolutely enrages the Freedom Caucus folks.

Then there is one final group who is objecting to the bill in order to score partisan points on immigration. There's no other way to put it. They are objecting to the fact that undocumented parents are eligible for the Child Tax Credit for any children they have who are U.S. citizens. Now, to get this credit, the parents have to file their income taxes (which every worker in this country is supposed to do, documented or not) as well as provide Social Security numbers for their eligible children (to prove they are citizens). Also worth mentioning is the fact that this is always the way this tax credit has worked, and Republicans didn't have any problem with it while passing, say, the Trump tax cuts. It is only now, when border politics and immigration are in the spotlight in Washington, that Republicans start fuming about "money going to illegals."

All of this Republican angst was aired during their closed-door caucus meeting today. They emerged with no decision on when the bill would actually be brought up for any votes in the House, meaning failure is definitely an option at this point. But there is still hope. A lot of House Republicans are strongly in favor of the business tax changes in the bill, and are willing to swallow the Democrats' C.T.C. boost in return. If the bill does get a vote to move forward, it will likely easily clear that two-thirds bar. Most Democrats will wind up voting for it, since the business tax cuts are not so odious that they cannot agree to them in return. And with a strong bipartisan vote in the House, it stands a good chance of success in the Senate as well (where, again, a Democrat will be fighting to pass it).

As budget and tax bills goes, the measure being proposed is pretty small potatoes. It's not some gigantic bill that will change the whole tax code. There are (as of yet) no odious poison-pill amendments that are guaranteed to tank support on the other side of the aisle. So it's still got a decent chance -- if Speaker Johnson can successfully herd his Republican cats into moving it forward.

As I said, this is the easiest bill of the three that could get House votes in the next month or so. The other two are going to be a lot more contentious. So this is a good test case of whether Speaker Johnson can show enough leadership skills in his chamber to get anything done at all. And, unfortunately, that is still a very open question.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


One Comment on “House Considers Actually Doing Something”

  1. [1] 
    Kick wrote:

    Can the Republican House get anything at all done?

    Yes... they can cause the government to shut down by doing absolutely nothing because they have no cojones.

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