Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

How ‘tax reform’ is really a wolf at the door

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff/AP

Unfortunately there are no truth-in-labeling laws when it comes to political products, but if there were, no one would be describing the tax-cut package Congress is cooking up as “tax reform.”

Or making claims, the way President Trump and congressional leaders are, that it’s targeted at the middle class. As a certain red-suited rotundity already making his appearance in early Christmas ads might respond to those claims: Ho Ho Ho!

So let’s consider more apt and accurate names.

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Like, say, the National Debt Expansion Plan. Or the Medicare Benefits Endangerment Package. Or perhaps even the Tax Hike for the Next Generation Act.

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Does it still sound good? Not if you believe in fiscal responsibility. Or intergenerational fairness. That is, the kind of estimable values that used to animate old-fashioned Main Street Republicanism. I know, I know, those are hoary sentiments from a bygone era, one when we were a country capable of thinking in an intelligent way about long-range national needs.

But just a few months ago — even a few weeks ago — revenue neutrality, like that of Ronald Reagan’s storied 1986 tax reform effort, was supposedly one of the legislative lodestars for this GOP initiative. After all, Republicans were hugely concerned about not increasing the national debt — or so it might have seemed to anyone who took their protestations at face value. Why, it wasn’t so very long ago that conservatives were ready to man the ramparts over increasing the debt ceiling, which merely authorizes the country to borrow for spending Congress has already approved.

And who can forget all the gnashing of teeth and charges of beggar-the-future profligacy when, in the depths of the Great Recession, President Obama asked for a one-time economic stimulus package of about $831 billion? The stimulus was only 55 percent of the nominal $1.5 trillion, 10-year size of this tax cut. And that price tag grows to $1.67 trillion when you factor in interest costs. And it could reach $2 trillion, warns the level-headed and nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. If so, the national debt would rise from an already problematic 92 percent of Gross Domestic Product to 99 percent of annual national income by 2027.

Further, this tax-cut plan, which is being peddled as an absolute economic necessity, comes at a time when the economy is doing well enough that Trump is not only boasting about it, but also trying to stake his own causation claim.

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Someone has to repay the new debt this would incur. That means more and more of future budgets will be dedicated to debt service, which in turn means less and less for other priorities. Medicare and Social Security already face future fiscal strains. Passing this package would make it more likely that, at some point, the federal government will either have to cut Medicare and Social Security benefits or pass a tax hike to stabilize those programs. Or both.

Conservatives obviously favor the first course. Indeed, US Representative Richard Neal of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, believes that’s part of the conservative motivation here: “If you starve government, eventually you are going to have to make some accommodation with programs like Social Security and Medicare.”

Americans are coming to understand that in their frantic effort to serve up a delicious to-the-victor-go-the-spoils pig roast for their base, the Republicans are doing a profound disservice to our nation. But the reconciliation rules and syncopated schedule make this a race between time and truth, rhetoric and reality.

With a manageable fiscal future hanging in the balance, it’s one we can’t afford to lose.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.