Bob Corker got his hand caught in the cookie jar.
Two weeks ago, the Tennessee Republican was the only GOP senator to vote against the party’s deficit-busting $1.5 billion tax cut. At the time, Corker claimed that his “guiding principle” as a senator is concern about “the rapidly growing $20 trillion national debt . . . on our children and grandchildren” and, as a result, he couldn’t vote for a bill that he said “could deepen the debt burden on future generations.”
On Friday, however, Corker abruptly changed his tune. Even though the latest version of the tax bill does nothing to address Corker’s deficit concerns, he announced that he was switching his vote from nay to yea. According to the Tennessee Republican, he could not pass up a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to make US businesses domestically more productive and internationally more competitive.”
Considering his “principled” opposition to increasing the federal deficit, it was hard to see the logic of Corker’s about-face — that is, until we found out Corker would personally profit from the legislation. At the last minute, a provision was inserted into the GOP tax bill giving a generous tax break to real-estate related pass-through corporations and partnerships. As chance would have it, Corker happens to have significant holdings in companies that would benefit from this change. In fact, Corker made between $1.2 million and $7 million last year from such income, which means this late addition to the GOP tax bill could net Corker close to $1.2 million in tax savings.
Corker is not the only Republican who stands to gain from the provision. According to an analysis from the International Business Times, which broke the original story, at least thirteen of the 44 Republicans who earned between $1.6 million and $2.6 million from similar investments to Corker’s could potentially see tax savings.
Another beneficiary would be President Trump, who has extensive real estate holdings and almost certainly would see his tax burden go down because of the provision. Same goes for his son-in-law Jared Kushner.
This, of course, is hardly the first time a last minute change is slipped into a major piece of legislation at the last minute. Famously, during the Obamacare debate in 2009, Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson negotiated a $100 million payment to his home state to subsidize the costs of expanding Medicaid. The deal caused such outcry that eventually it was removed from the bill. But at least in Nelson’s case, the so-called “Cornhusker kickback” helped his constituents. “Corker’s kickback” benefits him personally, as well as the president, the president’s son-in-law, and a host of other Republicans. It gives new meaning to the term “special interest.”
Corker has strenuously denied that he negotiated the tax break or even knew about its existence. He might be telling the truth. We may never know. But the real scandal here is in plain view: Corker, along with more than a dozen members of Congress and the president of the United States, will personally profit from a tax bill that they have sought to ram through Congress with a minimum of debate and scrutiny.
Rather than draining the swamp, Republicans have created a more toxic one, where the nation’s representatives are proposing and voting on legislation that will line their own pockets. And since there’s been such little close inspection of the GOP tax measure, we don’t know if there are other arcane parts of the law that could benefit individual Republicans who will be voting to make this bill law.
In non-bizarro America, Corker would demand the tax break be taken out of the bill or he’d refuse to vote for it as a clear conflict of interest. In an ideal, slightly less corrupt, world Republicans would move to scrub out measures that specifically enrich any members of their caucus. But of course we know that’s not going to happen. Instead, Republicans will move with maximum speed to pass their tax cut bill and get it to the president’s desk as quickly as possible — like they’re leaving the scene of a crime, which in a very real sense, they are. The GOP’s tax bill will loot the national treasury and the party’s true “guiding principle” seems to be “get while the getting is good.”
This is where we are in 2017: a president who is personally profiting from his office (and violating the Constitution in the process) and a Congress that is doing the same. In less than a year since Republicans took over Washington, America has gone from representative democracy to kleptocracy. So while it may have been Corker who got caught this time, it’s the rest of America that will be punished.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.