Tax Reform = Tax Rate Cuts

In a post mainly devoted to making sure we are aware that congressional Republicans are again contemplating a debt limit hostage-taking exercise, Jonathan Chait raises another development that is of equal importance in the shadow wars of budget politics. After a number of months in which the idea of “tax reform” was closely linked to the president’s demand for more revenues as part of a “grand bargain” on the budget, Republicans have gone back to their past habit of promoting “tax reform” exclusively as a way to engineer lower rates for individuals and corporations:

[W]hat is the GOP position on tax reform? It’s that tax reform must cut tax rates and not raise any revenue at all. So House Republicans are prepared to refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless Democrats agree to let them cut tax rates without increasing revenue. Their extraordinary threat, first presented as a way to force a reduction in the deficit, is now being wielded to prevent a reduction in the deficit.

This shouldn’t be surprising, since closing-loopholes-to-reduce-rates has been the GOP line on the need for “tax reform” from time immemorial. Yes, a handful of Senate Republicans after the 2012 elections suggested that just maybe “tax reform” could be used in part to lower deficits and not just to lower tax rates. But now, the GOP is back on message, and worse yet, you aren’t hearing the sort of assurances that Mitt Romney kept making during his presidential campaign that the rates-for-loopholes swap will not be used to reduce the overall percentage of federal taxes paid by the wealthy. So you could very well see “reform” proposals that make the overall system more regressive, particularly in terms of the very rich who benefit most from rate reductions.

Budget politics have already been skewed by the Republican monopolization of terms like “entitlement reform”–theoretically meaning changes in the entitlement programs that could lead in any number of directions, but now taken generally to mean “benefit cuts”–and “tax reform” could suffer the same fate. That’s maddening, of course, but because “tax reform” is one of those concepts that is generally popular, progressives need either to fight the conservative definition in a forceful and visible way, or find some other term for eliminating loopholes as a matter of fairness and efficiency rather than as a way to offset or disguise tax rate cuts.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.