Mitch McConnell's Tax Bill Strategy: Just Do It

(Bloomberg View) -- Nothing is certain until the final votes are in, but as of now it appears that the Senate will pass its version of the Republican tax bill. 

It's been an ugly process. While congressional scholar Josh Huder reminds us that each of the last several majority leaders have trampled on traditional procedures, he also says that Mitch McConnell "is doing more harm to the institution than any modern majority leader." As Sarah Binder put it, "Senate leaders also continue to negotiate the bill’s details in secret, just as they did this summer in crafting the health-care repeal bill. And as with this past summer’s effort, even senators who are trying to negotiate changes in the pending bill are being kept in the dark." 

It's true that Harry Reid, then the Senate majority leader, negotiated a post-committee version of the Affordable Care Act in his office behind closed doors. But the contrast is stark. That bill had full committee mark-ups before Reid combined them. The final product was available to everyone throughout a lengthy floor debate.

Democrats even paused the process at multiple points (in committee and on the Senate floor) for Congressional Budget Office scores, giving both supporters and opponents plenty of time to look closely at what they were voting on. This bill? They were still writing it on Friday, hours into the final debate. 

If it becomes law, the bill is likely to have all sorts of unanticipated effects -- and may have all sorts of hidden goodies in there that haven't been exposed. Poor drafting alone could wind up causing any number of problems, although we'll see whether Democrats block any technical correction bill the way Republicans irresponsibly blocked routine technical corrections of the Affordable Care Act.

So if it's such a mess, why is it (apparently) passing? Because the Republican senators who hold the majority wanted it to pass. And what explains their urgency? That's a tougher question, and I can think of several possible answers:

  • They think their voters care. The bill is very unpopular, but if Republican senators care most about primary elections, then they still might believe that the safest electoral play is to vote yes. 
  • Donors demand it. Cynics will assume this is the main reason, but I'm skeptical: Politicians don't typically do unpopular things just for campaign money. Still, I wouldn't rule it out as a factor, and there's some evidence for it
  • It's The Politician's Syllogism. As explained years ago in the British sitcom "Yes, Prime Minister," the decisions unfold thusly: "We must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do this." It's faulty logic, but after the GOP's health-care fiasco, it may nevertheless be influential in this case.
  • They really (really, really) believe in tax cuts. I suspect this is more important than anything. A lot of Republicans got into politics in the first place because they wanted to lower taxes. This is their big chance, never mind how imperfect -- even horribly flawed -- the actual legislation is. And the more they sincerely believe in the virtues of cutting taxes, the easier it is to ignore the experts warning against passing this bill. 
  • They're ducking blame again. After health care, where Speaker Paul Ryan successfully maneuvered to place blame on the Senate, it's time for some payback. 
  • It's just normal bargaining. Lisa Murkowski got drilling for oil in Alaska, something she's worked on for years. Jeff Flake of Arizona believes that he got a deal on the Dreamers. Perhaps they wanted tax cuts anyway, perhaps not, but this is how legislative logrolling always works, and perhaps McConnell just deserves credit for making it happen.

I have no idea which of these possibilities has been most important. Probably all of them are factors with one or more of the senators ready to vote yes. But it might matter as the bill moves forward. If they're just ducking blame, then the bill may yet die. If it's bargaining, then the question will be whether bargains can hold. If it's about the voters, then new information may change minds. But the other reasons are likely to remain constant for the next House action and any future Senate action.

Next step? Since the Senate bill differs from the House version, they're not done yet. There are three options. The House could simply vote on and pass the Senate bill. They could hold a formal House-Senate conference. Or they could vote on and pass a different bill, presumably a compromise they think the Senate would accept, and then ping-pong it back to the other chamber, which in turn would have the same three choices. 

So far, everyone involved claim a conference is coming. But that could take weeks, and a formal conference is at least partially public, and would subject the bill to the kind of publicity that Republicans have avoided so far. 

And the final outcome? I'll stick what I've been saying throughout: If they really want this to happen, there's no clear reason to expect that it won't. But then again, Republicans in this Congress have been known to muck things up for no good reason. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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