Congressional Republicans in the US seem to have tax reform nearly in the bag. Now they’re already thinking about their next agenda item: sharp cuts to the social safety net.
It’s a quick and shameless pivot from a tax bill that’s grotesquely tilted toward the rich straight into benefit cuts that will disproportionately sting the poor and middle class. There’s a term for this one-two punch: class warfare.
A few weeks ago at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the tax bill, Ohio senator Sherrod Brown had the temerity to point out the bill’s distributional impact. “I just think, it would be nice,” Brown proposed, “to just acknowledge, well, this tax cut really is not for the middle class, it’s for the rich.”
Republican chairman Orrin Hatch was having none of it. “I come from the poor people, and I’ve been here working my whole stinkin’ career for people who don’t have a chance,” he barked. “And I really resent anybody saying I’m just doing it for the rich. Give me a break.”
Just two weeks later, Hatch joined the rest of his Senate Republican colleagues (save the newly unfettered Bob Corker) in passing legislation slashing taxes on corporations and the wealthy, while dribbling some crumbs upon working Americans. The top 1% alone draws 62% of the total tax cuts in the bill, an annual gift worth an average of $32,150 apiece. Meanwhile, for families earning less than $75,000 annually, a few years of teaser tax cuts morph into a tax increase (paywall) by 2027.
That massive transfer of wealth to pay back the donor class will not pay for itself, but add $1 trillion to America’s debt over a decade, according to the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. But Hatch, Man of the Little People, has a plan for fixing federal debt: cut programs for the poor.
“We’re spending ourselves into bankruptcy,” Hatch said last week. “This country is in deep debt. You don’t help the poor by not solving the problems of debt, and you don’t help the poor by continually pushing more and more liberal programs through.”
Hatch is openly advocating to use painful cuts to programs benefiting vulnerable Americans so as to cover the debt which his party’s tax cuts for the wealthy will inflate. He isn’t the only Republican blowing the lid on the party’s starve-the-beast two-step jig. House Republicans have whispered that cuts to Medicare and anti-poverty programs would follow the deficit-exploding tax bill. Marco Rubio offered some wink-wink code-speak to a handful of DC lobbyists, vowing to tame government debt by “responsibly structur[ing]” (read: cutting benefits from) Medicare and Social Security. And House speaker Paul Ryan made it official yesterday, saying, “We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit.”
Truth be told, congressional Republicans have spent the entire first year of the Trump administration angling to take from the poor to give to the rich. Obamacare repeal was a Republican obsession with rolling back the most significant new public benefit for the poor and middle class in generations—all while zeroing out the law’s taxes on corporations and high earners. Though Republicans repeatedly fell flat trying to repeal the Obama’s signature achievement, the tax bill takes one last potshot at the law by eliminating its individual mandate to purchase insurance. This will deeply destabilize insurance markets across the country, leaving 13 million more people without health insurance by 2027.
The Republican class war is no surprise. In fact, Ryan has telegraphed it for years, occupying himself during the Obama administration by cranking out a series of thin-gruel conservative budget manifestos. Though the details varied slightly (and rarely added up), Ryan’s Roadmaps for America and Paths to Prosperity consistently chose to chauffeur the wealthy while stranding the poor on the shoulder hoping to hitch a ride. His budgets foreshadow the second half of the class war that comes after the windfall tax cuts for the rich: Medicare privatization, and massive cuts to Medicaid, food stamps, and other safety net programs.
Republicans aren’t just excavating Ryan’s budgets, however; they’re also dipping back into his old rhetoric. Ryan famously warned that America was tipping toward a “society where the net majority of Americans are takers, not makers.” Ryan eventually recanted the makers/takers talk in 2014, worried that his party had come to look a bit too much like a pack of cold-blooded vulture capitalists. But as the GOP of 2017 doubles down on plutocracy, the party is letting its guard down to once more valorize the wealthy while scoffing at people they see as moochers. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley recently went to bat for eliminating the estate tax by saying, “I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing, as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”
Given how aggressively the Republican agenda fetes the rich and fleeces everyone else, it’s remarkable how often the GOP blasted Obama for allegedly waging “class warfare” with his economic policies. Suddenly it makes perfect sense that the GOP wound up with a figurehead like president Donald Trump—one who poses like a populist while pilfering like a plutocrat, nursing a recurring habit for projection to boot.
Behind the front-page chaos of the White House, congressional Republicans have been hard at work redistributing the nation’s wealth upward. That has been the dominant trend of Republican governance—one plotted years in advance of the party’s return to power. The end goal of that plot is tax relief for the wealthy and benefit cuts for everyone else. Class war is at your doorstep, and Republicans brought it there.