Why Democrats Should Deal on Tax Corrections

(Bloomberg View) -- It's starting to look as if the Republican legislative agenda for this year is mostly about fixing the tax bill passed last year. That's going to be a challenge, and Republicans have only themselves to blame for it. But there's also an opportunity for Democrats to rebuild norms and a healthier approach to legislating while advancing some of their priorities at the same time.

The problem is that the tax bill has any number of drafting errors, along with an emerging list of unintended consequences. That's just normal for any major bill -- the much-praised tax reform bill of 1986 had plenty of problems. But an unusually rushed and sloppy process only made matters worse.

In the old days, bills to fix drafting errors -- called "technical corrections" bills -- were usually passed without controversy. That changed after Republicans blocked one for the Affordable Care Act of 2010. Instead, the party attempted to turn drafting mistakes into reasons to overturn the entire law, or at least make the new system work badly. The former is bad enough, but the latter was really reprehensible -- an attempt to intentionally harm voters for the short-term benefit of the party.

It's only natural for Democrats to ask themselves in 2018: Should we retaliate in kind?

On the one hand, nothing's changed. It's remains irresponsible to seek political gain by deliberately harming Americans. And make no mistake: A tax bill that functioned poorly because of drafting errors left unfixed could do real economic harm. 

On the other hand, Republicans decided to break the norm, which is why it's no longer a norm. Political parties have no obligation to give their opponents an advantage by following norms of restraint. Those have long since expired, unfortunately. 

So is there a way out? Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein has a suggestion: "House and Senate Democrats need to lay the marker down now: fixes in tax law only happen if Republicans fix DACA AND the ACA."

This is a smart approach. Even if they have the votes to block a fix, in this case by filibuster in the Senate, Democrats should not simply refuse to allow one to pass. Instead, they should bargain in good faith. And in this particular case, changes to the Affordable Care Act would be particularly appropriate: Democrats would be correcting Republican mischief-making on Obamacare. 

That's as far as it goes. Democrats don't deserve significant policy gains in exchange for, basically, acting responsibly, even if they do have some leverage. There are limits to what they can reasonably demand here, at least if we're talking about political ethics and behavior consistent with democratic practice. After all, Republicans have the White House, a solid House majority and a narrow Senate majority. Democrats have no grounds for refusing to support technical corrections until Republicans enact Medicare-for-all.

What really matters is that parties bargain in good faith, a core democratic norm that Republicans have undermined for the last 10 years. The consistent thread behind congressional Republican decisions to filibuster all legislation after the 2008 landslide was a disdain for seeking common ground. It includes their decision to blockade certain court seats and executive branch positions, and, yes, the refusal to allow technical corrections to Obamacare. 

Will it cost Democrats to abide by that norm? Perhaps on the margins, but less than one might think. On policy, Democratic gains on health care, immigration or other policy areas would presumably be sufficient to balance out any Republican ones in a better-functioning tax code. Otherwise, they wouldn't make the deal.

Another argument for resisting all Republican initiatives asserts that the out-party inevitably gains from chaos. It's probably overblown. Democrats in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016 didn't significantly underperform the fundamentals, after all. Perhaps a few more deals would have made President Barack Obama significantly more popular (or, even less plausibly, significantly improved the economy), but probably not. It's not as if Fox News and other Republican-aligned media outlets would have felt obligated to act any nicer to a Democratic president who cut deals with Republicans than one who didn't. 

The truth is that policy doesn't have to be a zero-sum game. And politicians don't have to behave as if it is. 

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.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

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