Nation

House passes tax bill but faces skeptical public

House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke after the House passed its version of the tax overhall.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke after the House passed its version of the tax overhall.

WASHINGTON — The relatively smooth passage of the tax overhaul in the House Thursday, and accompanying GOP celebration, belies certain political realities: that despite the hard sell, Republicans haven’t persuaded the American people they want this plan, or even need it.

The economy is growing stronger, unemployment is very low, and Americans are just not sold on the idea that slashing taxes deeply for corporations is going to cure wage stagnation among the middle class.

The dearth of enthusiasm for Republicans’ latest legislative effort is documented in several recent polls, including one released this week from Quinnipiac University that found only 16 percent of US voters expect to receive a tax cut under the GOP plans. Instead, Quinnipiac found most voters — more than 60 percent — believe the wealthy would be the main beneficiaries. And only 36 percent think the GOP tax effort will achieve its stated purpose: create jobs and boost economic growth.

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Also on Thursday, a new analysis from Congress’s own nonpartisan tax analysts undermined the Republicans’ pitch that their approach would help average Americans. The Joint Committee on Taxation found that the Senate version would eventually raise taxes on families making $75,000 or less, while those earning above $100,000 would enjoy significant tax cuts.

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An earlier Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found a similar cool reception among the public, while a poll from Reuters/Ipsos released in late October found only a small number of registered voters — 15 percent — who said Republicans should push tax legislation ahead of other priorities, such as reducing the deficit.

Instead, the push for changes such as lower corporate tax rates, elimination of estate taxes, and more favorable treatment of business partnerships comes mostly from the “swamp’’ President Trump ran against in 2016: the corporations, GOP contributors, and conservative think tanks that drive Beltway ideology.

Yet the lack of support among the public has proved barely a speed bump for Republicans, who — desperate for a legislative win and eager to fulfill longstanding party doctrine — are hustling the tax bill through Congress.

The vote Thursday, passing the House version of the tax bill 227 to 205, comes a mere two weeks after leaders unveiled its details, the latest example of Republican leaders sticking to their ambitious timeline and keeping the rank-and-file largely united behind the package.

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Meantime, unlike with the Republicans’ ultimately unsuccessful effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act earlier this year, Democrats are having a harder time scaring voters about the tax bill.

“It’s harder to see a kind of riled up, vocal, made-for-television opposition over taxes,” said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Even if many people believe the tax package won’t benefit them, or would even result in higher taxes, “it’s nothing compared to the optics — let alone the reality — of taking away health care benefits from a wide array of voters, many of whom voted for the president. You just don’t get that on taxes. Nobody’s mad as hell about tax cuts.”

Still, some strategists see political problems for the Republicans pushing a package that most people see as skewed toward the rich.

“It’s really befuddling to me, just politically speaking, that they would promote a tax bill in this environment that actually raises taxes on the middle class, that balloons the deficit, [and where] there’s serious debate that it will have any real positive impact on the economy,” said John Weaver, who served as top political strategist to Ohio Governor John Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign.

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“They are so out of touch with the average American,” Weaver said of congressional Republicans.

He pointed to the big losses Republicans suffered in the Nov. 7 elections in Virginia and New Jersey as a reason to tread carefully with a tax cut that doesn’t obviously benefit the middle class.

The measure faces a tougher test in the Senate, where Republicans can afford to lose only two of their 52-member majority. One GOP senator, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, said Wednesday he would vote against the current Senate bill; several others have raised concerns.

The Senate version includes a repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated will cause 13 million people to drop insurance. That gives Democrats more ammunition and could prompt key Senate swing votes like Maine Republican Susan Collins to oppose the package.

House Speaker Paul Ryan has been touting that the average American family of four would save $1,182 under the House plan, even turning the figure into a hashtag on social media, as well as emphasizing that filing taxes will become much simpler.

“Passing this bill is the single biggest thing we can do to grow the economy, to restore opportunity, and to help middle-income families that are struggling,” Ryan said before the vote Thursday.

For complex legislation that affects an individual taxpayer’s pocketbook in multiple ways — fewer tax brackets, curbs on deductions, ending certain tax benefits for students, the sick, and others — many Republicans see this as the best argument leaders can make.

“These are the right tools to be communicating the benefits in terms of the middle class — more jobs and higher wages. That’s the winning argument for this kind of reform,” said Michael Steel, a veteran of former GOP House speaker John Boehner’s office and Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign. “I think you’re seeing generally the House, Senate, and White House all making the most compelling argument that they can.”

But the Republican message machine is competing with protests from a range of critics —armed with analyses by outside tax specialists — that the benefits for average Americans aren’t as great as they appear.

The tax cut Ryan cites so often, for instance, would turn into a tax increase by the end of the decade, according to New York University tax law professor David Kamin, a former Obama adviser. That’s partly because some of the breaks for average Americans are temporary in the package, while the corporate cuts are permanent.

“What is supposed to be the obvious bit of middle-class tax relief just isn’t very obvious to people, it isn’t very clear,” said James Pethokoukis, an economic commentator with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “If you need to punch in a bunch of numbers on a calculator . . . then that might be a problem.”

President Trump remains a wild card in the messaging wars. He was overseas for a crucial period during the deliberations, yet still managed to shake up the debate with a tweet pushing lawmakers to include a repeal of the health mandate in the bill.

Steadier message discipline has come from numerous conservative and business groups, an army of unified support that the Republicans have rarely enjoyed all year.

The American Action Network, a Republican-aligned advocacy group, has spent $20 million promoting the GOP tax push in more than 50 congressional districts, with radio, TV, and Internet ads, among other efforts. This week it launched a $1.5 million campaign targeting GOP lawmakers who’ve raised concerns over the legislation, such as Representatives Darrell Issa of California and Lee Zeldin of New York.

The ad plugs the bill as offering “a simpler, fairer tax code — that cuts middle-class taxes.” The version running in California claims the legislation would create 111,000 jobs and increase “our middle-class family incomes by nearly $3,000.”

But the Quinnipiac poll this week showed a majority of Americans, 52 percent, just don’t believe the legislation will deliver on such a promise.

Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane
@globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.