Opinion | Schumer is right: The tax bill violates everything John McCain stands for

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has never let party politics drive his decisions. In the health-care debate, he brushed off his fellow Republicans’ pleas that they had to make good on a campaign promise. He voted against an ill-conceived, rushed health-care bill that had failed the basic requirements of good legislative process — open hearings, full debate, bipartisan buy-in. Now he faces similar pleas from Republicans. If we don’t pass tax reform, we’re toast in 2018. If we can’t pass tax reform, what purpose does the GOP serve?

The answer, just as it was in the health-care debate, is that bad process results in bad legislation and, more important, does permanent damage to the Senate and our democracy. Minority Leader Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) took to the floor on Monday to make an argument that McCain should heed.

Schumer explained, “Since the Republicans released their first draft of a tax bill a few weeks ago, we’ve had one week of markup in the Senate Finance Committee during which the bill shape-shifted on several occasions.” He continued: “Aside from the testimony of one representative from the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Senate hasn’t heard from any expert witnesses in a hearing room. Can you believe that? A major tax bill in front of the American people, changing lives dramatically, and no expert witnesses except the JCT gentleman. And the bill’s likely to change drastically again on the floor of the Senate, with little time for senators of either party to grapple with the consequences.”

This is precisely the situation we saw in the health-care debate. And as in the health-care debate, the official scorekeepers cannot keep up with the rush to pass a bill that wouldn’t stand up to careful scrutiny. “The Republicans are moving so fast, the JCT will not have time to produce a full analysis of the economic impact of the bill until after the bill is voted on,” Schumer said. “Is that backwards or what? The Republican tax bill will affect every taxpayer and business in America, and my colleagues won’t know many of its impacts before they vote on it.”

Schumer argued that it does not have to work this way:

The majority shouldn’t be ramming through such an ill-conceived, backward bill — breaking all of the traditions of this body, busting the deficit, hurting millions of middle-class families — when there is so much potential agreement between our two parties on tax reform. We could come up with a good, bipartisan bill. Not through reconciliation, through regular order, and we would all be the prouder for it.

McCain surely knows this to be true. Democrats would accept a 1986-style corporate tax reform that broadens the base, removes loopholes and thereby doesn’t open up a gusher of red ink. Democrats are amenable to a middle-class tax break, just not to ludicrous benefits (e.g. eliminated estate tax for the Trump clan).

Schumer promised that Democrats “want to lower middle-class taxes. We want to reduce the burden on small businesses and encourage companies to locate jobs here instead of shipping them overseas. And we want to do those things in a deficit-neutral way.” He added, “Those thoughts probably have a majority on each side of the aisle. It’s a shame that the Republican leadership has chosen reconciliation, which means no regular order, no hearings, no sunlight and no Democratic input into the bill.”

McCain should put Schumer’s feet to the fire and test the sincerity of those positions. If Schumer and Democrats don’t come forward, Republicans could always pursue reconciliation then. But why not explore a sensible, bipartisan bill first? The only reason, from our vantage point, is that Republicans want to give big tax cuts to the rich, their donors specifically. That’s the worst reason (“We want to reward our rich friends!”) to push through a partisan clunker of a bill.

McCain once more has a career-defining choice. Go with the flow or call upon senators to live up to the traditions of the body they serve. McCain can be a father of a better, responsible bill if he holds out for a better, responsible process. Those urging him otherwise may have their eye on their own elections or own futures, but McCain has always been able to screen out the cries of careerists and partisans. Let’s see if he can do it one more time.

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