Mark this day on the calendar, folks, to commemorate the point in time where the New York Times has more faith in Republican leadership than its own voters. Now that the GOP has succeeded with tax reform — an optimistic assessment on its own — the Times’ Kate Zernike and Alan Rappeport wrote that the next item on their list will be massive entitlement and welfare reform.
How many of you are checking the Times’ classified ads for the Brooklyn Bridge sale at this point? Be honest.
As the tax cut legislation passed by the Senate early Saturday hurtles toward final approval, Republicans are preparing to use the swelling deficits made worse by the package as a rationale to pursue their long-held vision: undoing the entitlements of the New Deal and Great Society, leaving government leaner and the safety net skimpier for millions of Americans.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan and other Republicans are beginning to express their big dreams publicly, vowing that next year they will move on to changes in Medicare and Social Security. President Trump told a Missouri rally last week, “We’re going to go into welfare reform.”
Their nearly $1.5 trillion package of tax cuts, a plan likely to win final approval in the coming days, could be the first step. But their strategy poses enormous risks, not only for millions of Americans who rely on entitlement programs, but also for Republicans who would wade into politically difficult waters, cutting popular benefits for the elderly and working poor just after cutting taxes for profitable corporations.
Let’s tap the brakes on the “final approval” notion. The Senate barely passed a bill that differs greatly from the House version of tax reform, in part because it doesn’t actually reform much at all. Both lower the corporate tax rate to 20%, but differ in almost every other significant respect — tax brackets, rates, deduction elimination, and expirations on individual rates vs corporate rates. The House and Senate have begun to conference on a compromise, but there is little that happened in the run-up to the Senate vote to suggest that Mitch McConnell can hold 50 votes together for final approval on anything significantly different than what they passed last week. Don’t pop the champagne yet on tax reform “success.” They’re a long way off yet.
On top of that, we’ve seen little evidence of an appetite for spending cuts from the GOP this session. Republicans would have been better off had they included spending cuts in the budget resolution that enabled tax reform to be considered under reconciliation, as it would have lowered the deficit impact — which cost them Bob Corker’s vote.
Also, that budget resolution was actually the second passed by the Republican-controlled Congress this year, and neither one lowered spending at all. They offered reductions in the previously projected rates of increase in spending, which … is not the same thing. Had they grappled with entitlement and welfare reform in the first place — and especially during the fight to repeal ObamaCare — Republicans could have produced a significant rollback in spending that could have cushioned the shocks from both an ObamaCare repeal and a serious tax reform.
One reason they didn’t was that Donald Trump explicitly campaigned against the kind of reform that would allow for significant reductions. He held firm on that pledge earlier this year too, forcing the GOP to fall back to incrementalism on all fronts. Has Trump changed his mind on entitlement reform? He has offered some encouraging words on welfare reform, but with Republicans and the White House facing a full-blast class-warfare blowback on the tax package, don’t expect Trump to abandon his populist core.
If Republicans take this up at all now, it would have to be for FY2019. It’ll be their midterm message: “Vote for us so we can get enough Senate seats to fulfill our promises!” Who knows? It might even work this time too, which is exactly what Charlie Brown thought every time he ran up to the football.