The not-so-secret Republican plan to raise taxes
Ever since the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans have done a very good job of not describing their vision for the country. Instead, they have kept their focus on the culture wars and which progressive ideas they’ll try to block.
That’s in part the legacy of former President Donald Trump’s personality-focused politics. But it’s also a habit that extends deep into the Republican establishment, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saying in December that he had no plans to release a legislative agenda in advance of the midterms. McConnell is a shrewd thinker, but the fact that a group of people won’t tell you how they plan to govern doesn’t mean they have no plans — it just means they see public discussion of their plans as counterproductive.
Last week Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, let the cat out of the bag with the release of an 11-step “Plan to Rescue America.” It packs plenty of lib-owning and culture-war trolling into its 30-plus pages — and it also reveals a clear aspiration to immiserate the majority of the country in pursuit of a hard-right economic agenda.
Perhaps its most obvious blunder is a clarion call to raise taxes on millions of low-income Americans. “All Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game, even if a small amount,” it says. “Currently over half of Americans pay no income tax.”
This idea that non-rich Americans are undertaxed is a long-held belief of the Republican donor class — recall Mitt Romney telling a crowd of donors in 2012 about his problems with the 47% of Americans who pay no income tax — but it makes very little sense on the merits.
For starters, the U.S. levies two different taxes on income, one of which is called an income tax and the other of which is called a payroll tax. The way these taxes are structured, people with low earnings pay a payroll tax on their income but not an income tax on their income. This is something of a semantic oddity, but the fact remains: People who earn income are paying a progressive tax on that income, which is how it should be.
The bigger question is why a senator from Florida seems unaware that a large (and rising) share of Americans are retired and thus tend not to pay income tax.
Social Security cuts?: Conservative elites have long yearned to cut Social Security benefits while often being restrained from saying so clearly — both because Social Security cuts are unpopular and because the base of the modern Republican Party is increasingly composed of elderly people. Yet the conservative id can’t help but deplore the existence of large programs that help make it more comfortable for non-rich people to retire. In addition to the plan to tax retirees, Scott’s plan proposes to “force Congress to issue a report every year telling the public what they plan to do when Social Security and Medicare go bankrupt” — trying to edge entitlement cuts back onto the public agenda.
Even more pointedly, the plan proposes the following principle: “No government assistance unless you are disabled or aggressively seeking work. If you can work, but refuse to work, you cannot live off the hard work and sweat of your fellow Americans.”
Scott obviously intends the audience to hear that as an attack on welfare recipients or single mothers, but by far the largest share of government spending on benefits for non-workers is Social Security, followed by Medicare. Even for Medicaid, a majority of spending is on seniors, the disabled and children. To slash spending on non-workers, it will be necessary to go after kids and the elderly.
And the hits don’t stop there.
The plan calls for a rule that “no government employee can make more than 5 times the national median individual income,” which sounds like a nice populist talking point until you think it through. Median personal income in the U.S. is just $35,000 (remember, again, that the population includes the retirees and full-time students). This would entail small pay cuts for America’s top-ranking military officers and huge pay cuts for physicians employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Scott’s war on the government’s ability to provide services effectively continues with a proposed 12-year term limit not only for members of Congress (which is unconstitutional) but also for “government bureaucrats” (which is not). So lawyers for, say, drug cartels would no longer need to go up against experienced federal prosecutors. You could no longer have a rewarding career as a ranger in America’s national parks.
How likely is it?: These are probably unintended consequences of Scott’s demagoguery. The intended consequences involve government entities such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which would no longer have experienced, talented personnel to make powerful businesses follow the law. The plan even proposes to “immediately cut the IRS funding and workforce by 50%,” which would increase the budget deficit by creating a bonanza for rich people who want to cheat on their taxes.
Is all this going to happen if, as seems very likely, Republicans recapture the Senate in November? Of course not — for starters, President Joe Biden’s White House won’t let it happen. And even if Republicans secure unified control of the federal government in 2024, these proposals are too far-reaching and far-out to be fully implemented.
Still, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee laying this agenda out is a clear indication of the direction the party intends to head if it’s empowered. And it shows that while post-Trump Republicans have learned to downplay the details of the conservative economic agenda, they haven’t actually abandoned it.
— Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. A co-founder and former columnist for Vox, he is also the author, most recently, of "One Billion Americans."