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Dems on Tax Reform Outreach: Talk is Cheap

07/13/2017

The Hill

Democrats say they have little reason to believe that Republicans are serious about doing tax reform on a bipartisan basis, saying they have yet to put meaningful action behind their words.

While Republicans have expressed an interest in bipartisanship on the issue and held a few meetings with Democratic lawmakers, they are also planning to pass tax-reform legislation through a process known as reconciliation, which would allow a bill to pass the Senate with only GOP support.

Additionally, key Republicans are working to reach agreement on a tax framework in talks that Democratic lawmakers have not been invited to.

The lack of deep bipartisan outreach is frustrating Democratic lawmakers, who say they agree with Republicans that the tax code needs to be overhauled.

“The history of this is you get both sides in early, and you get both sides invested,” Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said this week. “It’s a prescription for trouble to not do it.”

Wyden said that there hasn’t been much engagement beyond one meeting in May, when Trump administration officials met with both Republicans and Democrats on the Finance Committee. He called that meeting “sort-of a glorified dog-and-pony show.”

Tax reform is one of Republicans’ highest priorities, and congressional Republicans and administration officials are aiming to have legislation enacted by the end of the year.

Some Republicans have said they would like to work with Democrats on the issue.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said in a floor speech Wednesday that he hopes his “Democratic colleagues will opt to join Republicans in this effort.” And White House legislative affairs director Marc Short told reporters last month that tax reform will ideally “become a bipartisan effort.”

But that message has not been consistent. The day after the White House released its one-page tax plan in April, a senior administration official said that the administration did not include any sweeteners for Democrats because they viewed their support as unlikely.

Democratic lawmakers said they think Republicans’ engagement with them on tax reform could be more thorough.

“I’m concerned as we head into tax reform now that we have not started in a bipartisan fashion,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and a vice chair of the centrist New Democrat Coalition.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) has met with the Democrats on his panel as well as the New Democrats, and the tax-writing committee is holding its third tax-reform hearing on Thursday. Hatch has also scheduled a Finance Committee hearing on tax reform for next week.

But DelBene said there haven’t been extensive discussions about what a bipartisan process and bill would look like.

“We need to see that on tax reform if we’re going to have a successful product,” she told The Hill.

Democrats are also troubled by the fact that Republicans plan to use reconciliation for tax-reform legislation.

Democrats on the Finance Committee told administration officials during their meeting in May that they did not want a “gun to our heads through reconciliation,” Wyden said just after the session.

At the moment, much of Republicans’ focus on tax reform has been on getting the White House and congressional Republicans on the same page. Congressional GOP leaders, the chairmen of the tax-writing committees and administration officials have held several meetings to reach consensus on the outlines of a tax plan.

White House spokeswoman Natalie Strom said the group’s discussions have been informed by the feedback that policymakers have gotten from Republicans and Democrats alike.

“When the framework is released, the committees will work to advance legislation, and we certainly hope Democrats will be part of the process in shaping and supporting tax reform,” she said.

Brady told reporters Tuesday that it’s “hard to know” whether Democrats will ultimately support a tax bill, but he continues to solicit ideas from them.

“I think they have good ideas on tax reform,” he said.

Democrats say it’s important to have a seat at the table as legislation is being crafted.

Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), policy co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition of centrist Democrats, said that for tax reform to be truly bipartisan, Democrats should be involved in writing the bill.

“The sooner the better for inclusion,” he said.

Lipinski added that it’s hard to tell how far Republicans have gotten in their efforts yet, and he said that the Blue Dogs are “really hopeful that tax reform is going to be bipartisan.”

Many Democrats agree with Republicans on some priorities for tax reform, such as providing tax relief for the middle class and lowering the corporate tax rate.

But on other issues, such as the tax rates for high earners and the estate tax, the two parties are polar opposites.

Democrats also say tax reform should not increase the deficit, while Republicans are divided over whether tax changes should be revenue-neutral.

Rep. Richard Neal (Mass.), the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, said he’s concerned that Republicans are on the path toward pursuing tax cuts instead of tax reform, which would be “an awful mistake.”

“The secretary of the Treasury and [White House economic adviser] Gary Cohn have both expressed to me personally their desire for bipartisanship,” Neal said. “There seems to be less of that as to where we’re heading at the moment.”

Democrats note that the last time Congress passed tax-reform legislation, in 1986, the bill was bipartisan.

But the political climate was different at the time, with a divided government and less polarized political parties. Hatch has criticized today’s Democrats as wanting to set preconditions for bipartisan tax-reform discussions.

Harry Stein, director of fiscal policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, said he thinks “the only way that you get a bipartisan process is if the current process fails.”

However, Congress is “nowhere near that happening,” he said.


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