Credit Card Conservatism

Who knows what the final version of the Republican tax plan currently winding its way through Congress will end up doing. Certainly not the people who actually vote for it. Last week the Senate passed a bill that nobody had read and many found, quite literally, illegible. Senators got the “final” 500-page version minutes before they voted on it and it was an editor’s nightmare. There were huge last-minute changes drafted in prescription pad chicken scratch. Here’s an example of what it looked like:

Based on just this one page’s marginal addendums, Senators were given only a few minutes to decide whether they would vote “yea” or “nay” on the critical issue of, and I quote as near as I can decipher, “adjustments attribulatos conservism for a craporation.”  Said adjustments subject to “(1) Inguanas in the care of ellifiths rumnitatdos craporation any incage.” Well, as a matter of public policy that’s a toughie. I suppose I could understand a legislator supporting rumitading Inguanas if it was all done by consenting adults. It’s a free country. But why force innocent ellifiths to get involved? Surely there’s some moral, if not legal, objection to that? And why does anyone have to get craporated at all? That sounds downright painful (Q: Howya feeling Bill? A: I’m craporated).

In all seriousness, the Senate has gone silly. When it comes to writing law, you kind of expect the House to indulge in the odd round of ill-considered speed stating. It’s kind of what it was designed for, to capture popular passions or, as is increasingly these case these days, to capture unpopular passions. The Senate, though, is supposed to be the grown up branch. If the House puts things on the boil, it’s the upper chamber’s job to cool them down. The Senate is supposed to be the reflective, ruminative chamber, the legislative nanny who pulls the government’s fingers out of whatever light socket the House has jammed them into. Well, these days, not so much. Present the Senate with the political equivalent of an electrical outlet and somebody’s digits–most likely ours–are going to get lit up.

It’s kind of hard to overstate the negatives of the process used to jam the tax bill through the Senate. Forget all the pat-on-the-back hoo-hah about that place being the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” There wasn’t any deliberation, no thoughtful pleas on one side balanced with reasoned pleas on the other. It was about speed, not plead. No public hearings, no real chance for any analysis, not even time to read the damn thing–there’s a high probability that not a single legislator really knew the specifics of what they were or were not voting for. Lobbyists wrote much of the law–more than half of the registered lobbyists in Washington DC report working on tax legislation  — and they did it on the fly. At least some senators received their copies of the “final” bill from lobbyists rather than from Republican leadership. This isn’t how you make law. This is how you make a mess.

The jettisoning of Senate procedural norms to engage in a slapdash sprint to pass legislation that is clearly going to cost a packet is all the more puzzling because of who is doing it. Lots of Republican senators — and certainly plenty of their colleagues in the House — have spent years campaigning on the dangers of growing government debt and deficits. Agree or disagree, resisting the production of more federal red ink has been a central principle for many Republicans. So much for that. Currently, there is little interest in such principles and even less in the interest that’ll be due on the principal thanks to the loan Congress will have to float to pay for it all (that interest is easily going to be 50-plus billion dollars).

A generous interpretation of what’s going on with the tax bill is that Republicans are playing the long game. By driving the deficit up and putting expiration dates on the middle-class tax breaks, at some point in the next decade a broke and unpopular government (bonus if it’s got a Democratic majority) will have no choice but to make some serious cuts. By then the rushed and incompetent legislation that created the empty pockets will be long forgotten. Taking advantage of the electorate’s political amnesia, Republicans can then say, “hate to do it, but the government is totally broke and we’ll have to take some of your Social Security and Medicare to balance the books. Bummer, but whaddya gonna do?  Don’t look too close, just remember Obamacare, Benghazi, Hillary’s emails, etc., etc.”

I’m skeptical some long-game master plan is under all this.  What we seem to be witnessing is a sort of credit card conservatism. Like shopaholics glued to QVC, the GOP just doesn’t seem to able to help itself. Desperate to cover the emptiness it feels over a lack of legislative accomplishments, Republicans are putting as much as they can on the old plastic fantastic to appease special interest sponsors and justify its majority. It’ll worry about the minimum payments later.

Buying goodies for your crew on the never, never, though, runs a big risk of buyer’s remorse. Voters clearly think they’re being suckered—public opinion polls suggest that large majorities think the tax plan is mostly a scam to benefit the well-off (you can peruse a range of them here).  So, passing a plan with dubious arguments about borrowing from the future so the Grey Poupon crowd can make bank in the here and now might stick in people’s memories longer than some realize. If that happens, the tax plan might turn out to get the reaction we all have when we open those monthly envelopes from Visa and MasterCard: Well, rumitard an Inguana, we’ll never pay this off. We’re totally craporated.