Tax Analysts Blog

Rubio Would Be Another Obama on Tax Lawmaking

Posted on Apr 28, 2015

Marco Rubio is having a good couple of weeks. The freshman Republican senator from Florida has surged to the top of polls in the crowded GOP presidential field, outdistancing even former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. His announcement of his presidential campaign received favorable reviews, both because of his high favorability ratings and a slick rollout. And Rubio has put out a detailed tax plan with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, that even some liberals have grudgingly admitted is a lot better version of a flatter tax structure than anything from his conservative rivals. But the gaps in Rubio's tax plan, along with his level of experience, should give serious tax policy observers pause because Rubio seems a lot like candidate Barack Obama in 2008.

The obvious parallels between Rubio and Obama have been drawn in numerous places. Obama was a freshman senator in 2008 with little experience (particularly in foreign policy and fiscal issues). Rubio is a freshman senator now with that same weakness. The president certainly framed his initial candidacy as a departure from tradition and an unlikely event. In his speech on April 13, Rubio called his campaign improbable because of his background. Obviously, many pundits have called attention to the fact that many of the criticisms Rubio has leveled at Obama could just as easily be said about the Florida senator.

On taxes, Rubio has the makings of another Obama. Not so much in that Rubio holds similar beliefs as the president (he does not), but because he doesn't have a strong background. Rubio isn't on the Senate Finance Committee. The tax plan that he has put forward seems primarily the work of Lee. And, although it contains more detail than anything we've seen from Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul (other Republican contenders), it also demonstrates a naivete about how tax policy is made. The prior version of the Rubio-Lee plan would cost more than $2 trillion over 10 years, making it unfeasible no matter how much economic growth it could produce. The updated version would be even more costly. The plan is also extremely regressive, despite an increased child credit.

The danger is that Rubio, like Obama, would almost certainly defer to his congressional caucus in the drafting of a tax reform proposal. He simply doesn't have much experience at putting together complicated legislative proposals that have a chance of passing both chambers. Obama has spent his entire presidency deferring to lawmakers to write bills. That's why we've had no serious progress on tax issues, an overly complicated healthcare reform law that may or may not survive successive court challenges and repeal proposals, and a financial reform package that would have to be strengthened to be called watered down.

If serious tax reform is going to happen in 2017, it will take a president that is committed to emulating Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush. The executive branch must take the lead in putting forward a detailed proposal and then spending political capital to push it through Congress. The president must have the ability to know when and what to compromise. Obama has utterly failed at this for six years. Rubio, with a similar lack of experience and detachment from detailed tax and fiscal lawmaking, probably isn't the president to improve on that record.

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