Last month, Republican House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) introduced his proposal for a major overhaul of the U.S. tax code. But among Republican leaders in Congress, its arrival was about as welcome as an ill-timed fart.
Hoping to focus the 2014 midterm elections on Obamacare instead of controversial new tax provisions, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) pronounced Camp's plan dead on arrival, cynically lamenting, "I think we will not be able to finish the job, regretfully. I don't see how we can." Meanwhile, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) rejected the idea that Camp's was the official House GOP tax plan and responded simply, "Ah, Jesus" when asked if he would bring it up for a vote. And Paul Ryan (R-WI), who if he does not run for president in 2016 will likely take Camp's committee gavel next year, "ducked questions on the proposal's substance" before blandly declaring, "this is the beginning of a good debate."
But the skittish reaction of the GOP's best and brightest should not mislead anyone into believing that this is the beginning of the end for Dave Camp's tax code rewrite. Instead, it is just the end of the beginning. After all, in early 2010 Republicans in Congress terrified about its impact on the upcoming midterms ran away from Paul Ryan's budget-busting, upper class tax-cutting, Medicare rationing, Social Security privatizing and safety net shredding "Roadmap for America's Future." Yet a year later, 95 percent of Republicans on Capitol Hill voted for the Ryan budget, a near-unanimous endorsement they would repeat in 2012 and 2013.
From almost the moment Barack Obama first took the oath of office, Paul Ryan has been the GOP's self-proclaimed point man for the Republican alternative budget. But support among his GOP colleagues has always been directly proportional to the distance to the next Election Day. The closer Americans get to the ballot box, the fewer Republican allies Ryan has by his side.
Please read below the fold for more on this story.
Consider, for example, the fate of Ryan's Roadmap version 1.0. In April 2009, Ryan got 137 of his GOP colleagues to vote for his Republican alternative budget which, among other things, called for "replacing the traditional Medicare program with subsidies to help retirees enroll in private health care plans." As Steve Benen pointed out in September 2009:
The AP noted at the time that Republican leaders were "clearly nervous that votes in favor of the GOP alternative have exposed their members to political danger."In January 2010, Republican nervousness verged on hysteria. That month, Paul Ryan formally launched his Roadmap for America's Future. Then House Minority Leader John Boehner was quick to put distance between Ryan's Roadmap and any GOP stamp of approval. Foreshadowing the comments he made about Camp's tax plan in February, Boehner explained:
"Paul Ryan, who's the ranking member on our budget committee, has done an awful lot of work in putting together his roadmap," Boehner said. "But it's his. And I know the Democrats are trying to say that it's the Republican leadership. But they know that's not the case."Boehner had good reason to be worried heading into the 2010 midterm elections. For starters, Ryan's Roadmap called for slashing taxes to just two brackets of 10 and 25 percent, cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 to 25 percent and eliminating the estate tax altogether. Because Ryan wouldn't name a single tax break he would close in order to lower rates and "broaden the base," the inevitable result would be a massive tax cut for the very rich while many working Americans would see their tax bills rise, all while draining trillions in revenue from the U.S. Treasury. Repealing the Affordable Care Act and slashing Medicaid spending by a third would leave tens of millions more people without health insurance. More frightening still, Paul Ryan resurrected the wildly unpopular idea of privatizing Social Security for Americans under age 55, by offering them "the option of investing over one-third of their current Social Security taxes into personal retirement accounts, similar to the Thrift Savings Plan available to federal employees." Worst of all for the GOP 2010 midterm strategy of terrifying seniors over Obamacare cuts to Medicare providers, Ryan was proposing to convert Medicare into a voucher scheme for purchasing private insurance that the CBO confirmed would dramatically shift health care costs to the elderly.
Ezra Klein described the inexorable Republican rationing of Medicare which would then ensue:
The proposal would shift risk from the federal government to seniors themselves. The money seniors would get to buy their own policies would grow more slowly than their health-care costs, and more slowly than their expected Medicare benefits, which means that they'd need to either cut back on how comprehensive their insurance is or how much health-care they purchase. Exacerbating the situation -- and this is important -- Medicare currently pays providers less and works more efficiently than private insurers, so seniors trying to purchase a plan equivalent to Medicare would pay more for it on the private market.And Republicans would be at risk of not getting the elderly vote they needed to win in November 2010. Which is why for the rest of 2010, Paul Ryan's Roadmap became the turd in the Republican swimming pool. As the New York Times reported that July:
It's hard, given the constraints of our current debate, to call something "rationing" without being accused of slurring it. But this is rationing, and that's not a slur. This is the government capping its payments and moderating their growth in such a way that many seniors will not get the care they need.
Representative John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, the minority leader, has praised Mr. Ryan but said the Roadmap would not be a part of the Republican agenda this fall.Which was exactly right. With its steep spending cuts, Medicare rationing, tax cuts for the rich and Social Security privatization, a GOP midterm platform based on Ryan's Roadmap would have been about as welcome as flesh-eating bacteria. As the Washington Post put it in the summer of 2010:
"There are parts of it that are well done," Mr. Boehner told reporters last month. "Other parts I have some doubts about, in terms of how good the policy is."
In fact, only 13 House Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors, and Republican leaders, hoping for gains in the fall and, ultimately, in 2012, seem concerned at the possibility that the Roadmap may eventually become something candidates will be forced to take a position on. After all, what candidate wants to talk about major changes to Medicare and Social Security?
Many Republican colleagues, who, even as they praise Ryan for his doggedness, privately consider the Roadmap a path to electoral disaster...Even Ryan's closest political allies feared the blowback from his ideas. In 2010, GOP representatives Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) joined Ryan in publishing Young Guns. But even Ryan's co-authors were afraid to publicly back his reactionary plans. As ThinkProgress reported in August 2010, Cantor repeatedly refused to endorse Ryan's Roadmap. That September, his other co-author McCarthy lied about what was in Ryan's plan and their book, pretending, "No one has a proposal up to cut Social Security. It's about protecting it."
The discomfort some Republicans feel for Ryan's proposals goes beyond November. If Republicans were to take control of Congress next year, Ryan will rise to chairman of the Budget Committee. He could use the position to hold colleagues accountable for runaway budget deficits and make it more difficult for fellow Republicans -- and Democrats -- to stuff bills with expensive projects that add to the problem.
For his part, Ryan in August 2010 acknowledged the GOP's then-allergic reaction to his Roadmap.
"While I am proud to have 13 House Republicans co-sponsor the legislation, and have been overwhelmed by the support outside the Beltway," he claimed, "my plan is not the Republican Party's platform and was never intended to be."Unless, that is, the Republican Party took control of the House of Representatives. And with the GOP's overwhelming triumph in November 2010, that's exactly what happened.
Victory won, Speaker Boehner made Paul Ryan's Roadmap the basis for the House GOP budget. While some provisions were dropped (such as Social Security privatization) or altered (the Medicare "premium support" scheme would maintain the traditional government program as one option), by and large the Ryan plan advanced through the House intact. (The Ryan budget also included the exact same $760 billion in Medicare savings Republicans had used to scare the bejesus out of the elderly in the run-up to the midterms.) In 2011, 2012 and again 2013, the Ryan budget garnered the votes of at least 221 House Republicans and 40 GOP Senators. John Boehner himself jumped in with both feet in April 2011:
"I fully support Paul Ryan's budget, including his efforts on Medicare."This is not to say Republicans were without misgivings as Election Day 2012 approached. Short-lived GOP presidential frontrunner Michele Bachmann got cold feet over the Ryan budget she voted for, explaining "I put an asterisk on my support" because "I'm concerned about shifting the cost burden to seniors." And as Politico and The Hill each reported after Mitt Romney made Ryan his running mate, among Republican strategists and GOP members of Congress that heartburn neared panic. "Away from the cameras," Politico noted, "there is an unmistakable consensus among Republican operatives in Washington: Romney has taken a risk with Ryan that has only a modest chance of going right—and a huge chance of going horribly wrong." As The Hill explained:
Republicans strategists are worried that Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) addition to the presidential ticket will cost their party House and Senate seats this fall.Needless to say, Republicans in Congress got over their fears. Ryan did not become vice president of the United States in 2013, but his budget was anointed as GOP orthodoxy for the third year in a row.
Their concern: Democrats will successfully demonize Ryan's budget plan, which contains controversial spending cuts and changes to Medicare...Many Republicans in tough races this year, especially in the House, voted for Ryan's proposal, which makes it hard for them to distance themselves from it.
Which is just one of the reasons why Dave Camp should feel pretty good about himself right about now. For starters, by publicly committing to close a wide range of popular tax breaks that cost Uncle Sam up to $1.3 trillion a year, Camp showed the courage that Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney clearly lacked. While Democrats can find much to dislike in Camp's tax plan (including its outsized impact on blue state residents, its tax increases on the working poor, the large reductions in corporate tax rates, its failure to raise more revenue while producing bigger long-term deficits), his new Wall Street taxes and end to the "carried interest exemption" are provisions many will support. More importantly for its prospects in the GOP-dominated House of Representatives, there is a lot of pain for a lot of people in Dave Camp's reform bill. And that means Republicans will completely disown Dave Camp's tax overhaul.
At least until the 2014 midterm elections are over.