I write this as the sun is rising on Capitol Hill. It’s a brisk Friday morning, the first day of December. Senators should already have flown home for their five-day weekends. But Elizabeth MacDonough and Tom Barthold have made that impossible. Elizabeth is the Senate Parliamentarian, the unelected but respected referee who rules on what is in and out of bounds of Senate rules. Tom, with a Harvard Ph.D. and 30 years of Capitol Hill experience, is the well-liked chief of staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, which scores tax bills on their budget impact. Congress should provide them both with striped shirts and whistles (and now maybe Kevlar vests).
Senators are flummoxed because Elizabeth won’t let them insert tax triggers into the special-procedure reconciliation bill. Triggers would have appeased Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona who have promised not to vote for a bill if reputable sources estimate the legislation would increase the deficit. You can’t get a source more reputable than Barthold and his colleagues at the JCT. And now they’re saying—even when they include dynamic effects that Republicans have sought for over two decades—that H.R.1, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, reduces taxes too much and boosts the economy too little.
If I remember my Catholic school catechism correctly—and I proudly report I was an A student in this course—limbo is a place (not to be confused with purgatory) between Heaven and Hell. It is where unbaptized babies are sent because they still have original sin. Technically, they should go to Hell for that. But since they are innocents, they are granted an exception to the general rule.
Senators now are in legislative Limbo. Heaven is passing the bill. Hell is failure. Many of the senators seem so innocent. They have that proverbial deer-in-the-headlights look. They didn’t know the trigger was out of bounds. Nobody told them they easily could be overpromising revenue-neutrality by $1 trillion.
So now the all the majority leader’s horses and all of his men are trying to put this Humpty-Dumpty bill back together again. They say they might have it fixed by the time sun reaches its highest point on this December day. That would be a feat worthy of the record books. Please remember it’s not just deal making. It’s deal-making where every offer and counteroffer must be scored by the number-crunching JCT staff who are already numb with exhaustion. And, by the way, they are not allowed to make mistakes.
The challenges are formidable. Senate Republicans need $350-$500 billion to appease Corker and Flake on their deficit concerns (Why so “little”? It is, after all, a $1 trillion tax cut). They must find something like $200 billion to retain deductibility of at least $10,000 of property tax to appease Sen Collins, R-Maine, and the House of Representatives. They need more money for passthrough businesses that Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., insists are being short-changed. And perhaps another $200 billion more to appease Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and Mike Lee, R-Utah, who want more tax relief for the middle class in the form of an expanded child credit.
I’m glad I’m not on that staff any more. Sleep deprivation is torture that was commonly used by the Soviets. We’ll have to wait and see--for how long nobody knows--for major changes, of what kind nobody knows. It seems like the process is a little rushed. Senators themselves admit they don’t understand what’s happening. We the people who pay the bills haven’t a clue. Maybe we should have had a hearing.
This blog—and so much more—is dedicated to my former editor and CEO at Tax Analysts Chris Bergin, who sadly has passed away. Chris, we are still fighting the good fight.