Two major Republican figures have now undercut tax reform—the party’s signature legislative achievement of the Trump era.
But the truth former health and human services secretary Tom Price and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) exposed in their respective criticisms is not what many Democrats would like voters to think. The problem, they suggest, is not with the merits of the bill, but with the failure of the Republican Party to level with the public about the tradeoffs involved in getting there.
Let’s start with Price. Not long ago, he was advocating getting rid of the individual mandate. But now that it’s gone—via the overhaul of the tax reform bill—he is warning about the potential for rising health care costs.
“There are many, and I am one of them, who believes that that actually will harm the pool in the exchange market because you’ll likely have individuals who are younger and healthier not participating in that market,” Price said in a speech on Tuesday. “And, consequently, that drives up the cost for other folks in that market.”
This is not exactly a blaring-siren moment. It was always feared that removing the mandate for healthy young people to purchase insurance while keeping the provision requiring insurance companies to cover sick people would lead to “adverse selection.”
And yet that’s exactly what Republicans did in the tax bill. At the time, they chose to revel in the pound of flesh they’d taken from Obamacare. And there is certainly a case to be made that granting more choice—including the choice to forgo health care coverage—is consistent with conservative philosophy. But an honest, sober process would have involved consideration of the downsides too.
Frankly, it was stunning how little discussion or uproar there was when the individual mandate was repealed as part of tax reform. It was a huge deal, and it was pretty much considered a side issue. At least by Republicans. At least until now.
But Price wasn’t the only Republican voicing concerns about the efficacy of the GOP’s lone Trump-era policy trophy. Take Rubio, who recently voiced concerns that are more directly tied to the tax bill, itself.
“There is still a lot of thinking on the right that if big corporations are happy, they’re going to take the money they’re saving and reinvest it in American workers,” the senator recently told The Economist. “In fact they bought back shares, a few gave out bonuses; there’s no evidence whatsoever that the money’s been massively poured back into the American worker.”
That’s a pretty stunning admission, when you consider that the White House promised us the result of this tax bill, which (among other things) cut the corporate tax from 35 percent to 21 percent, would result in the average family getting a $4,000 raise.
But Rubio wasn’t saying that the bill wasn’t worth passing. He was saying that the tradeoffs should have been better understood. He knows this himself, having pushed for a $2,000 child tax credit by slightly raising the corporate rate from 20 percent. He then settled for a watered-down compromise version and voted for the bill.
But what Rubio was really getting at was how the bill was presented as addressing a looming crisis that, in actuality, remains unsolved. In the interview, he went on to pooh-pooh the notion that Trump’s policies can bring back working-class jobs. “I have no problem with bringing back American car-manufacturing facilities,” he said, “but, whether they’re American robots or Mexican robots, they’re going to be highly automated.”
This is a true, if not surprisingly candid, thing to say that, yes America’s corporate tax rate was too high; yes it needed to be lowered; and no, lowering it would not be a panacea for creating growth. Saying as much does not undermine conservative orthodoxy regarding supply-side economics, so much as it accepts the fact that the solutions that worked in the 1980s won’t necessarily work in a 21st century where automation is on the rise.
So why are we suddenly hearing from these two Republicans about how things are really more nuanced and complicated— terms like “automation” and “adverse selection”—than we were led to believe when the tax bill passed? Why are they undermining their own party’s major policy achievement now, at the precise moment when the party needs something to run on in the 2018 midterms?
Having been pushed out of his role at HHS, Price is free to give speeches and give us his honest opinion on matters. Rubio, who is still in office, is the more interesting example.
The senator recently hired Michael Needham of Heritage Action to be his chief of staff, a populist conservative whose greatest accomplishment prior to joining Rubio seems to have been pushing Republicans to shut down the government in 2013 (oh yeah, and attacking Rubio’s efforts to reform immigration).
Is it a coincidence that Rubio hired a grassroots conservative populist to head his office? Perhaps. Or perhaps, in a Trump-dominated conservative era, he recognizes that the formula for success is to admit that nuance exists in both policy and politics and to take advantage of the vulnerabilities that could soon emerge for the president on the populist left.