Trump Goes All In on a Tax Overhaul Whose Details Remain Unwritten

Then there is a tough interim step: Republicans must pass a budget resolution to unlock the procedural tool that would let them move a bill through the Senate with a simple majority. Congressional leaders are bracing for a fight over that budget blueprint.

But Mr. Trump made clear on Wednesday that he was ready to deal. At a bipartisan gathering of House members at the White House, the president said that he wanted a tax bill that benefited the middle class. He tried to ease concerns that he was preparing to give a windfall to the rich.

“The rich will not be gaining at all with this plan,” Mr. Trump said. “I think the wealthy will be pretty much where they are.”

He added about their tax rates, “If they have to go higher, they’ll go higher.”

Representative Kurt Schrader, Democrat of Oregon, emerged from the meeting encouraged.

“I took that as a signal that he’s not concerned about the upper 1 percent or 5 percent, he’s concerned about hopefully middle-class Americans,” he said. “Proof’s in the pudding. We’ll see how it comes out.”

That gathering was one of a series of bipartisan efforts to push the tax overhaul. He held a dinner Tuesday night with senators from both parties where tax matters dominated the conversation. On Wednesday night, the president was set to dine with Congress’s top Democrats, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California.

To old hands of America’s biggest tax policy battles, the Republicans’ accelerated timeline appears virtually impossible. One big reason: the diminished standing of Gary D. Cohn, director of the president’s National Economic Council, and Steven Mnuchin, his Treasury secretary. That diminution is largely of the team’s own making; Mr. Trump has let it be known that Mr. Cohn is in disfavor for publicly disparaging the president’s response to violent racists in Charlottesville, Va., and Mr. Mnuchin suffered public scorn after jetting to Kentucky on a government plane with his wife to witness the solar eclipse.

Their stature stands in contrast to the experienced players who shepherded the last major tax overhaul in 1986.

“Things are quite anarchic across the board right now, and that’s not helping at all,” said C. Eugene Steuerle, who served as the coordinator of the Treasury Department’s tax reform effort from 1984 to 1986.

Last week, Mr. Trump blindsided Mr. Mnuchin during negotiations over lifting the government’s statutory borrowing limit — an issue that is central to the job of Treasury secretary. Mr. Mnuchin was pushing for an 18-month extension of the debt limit before Mr. Trump interrupted him and sided with Mr. Schumer and Ms. Pelosi, who wanted a three-month extension.

The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, insisted this week that Mr. Trump had “confidence” in Mr. Mnuchin, but the rift over the debt limit left many observers wondering if his public stances on taxes could still be trusted.

“Mnuchin might be the smartest man in the world, but he doesn’t have any substantive tax credentials other than being a businessman,” said Ronald A. Pearlman, the Treasury Department’s assistant secretary for tax policy in the mid-1980s. “In terms of conceptualizing a new corporate tax system, I can’t imagine he brings a lot to the table.”

In public, those who have been working closest with Mr. Cohn and Mr. Mnuchin have been quick to defend them after slights from the president.

“They’ve been terrific on tax reform,” Mr. Brady, the Texas congressman, said. “They bring policy expertise to the table within their agencies, they bring real-life expertise to the table.”

Lawmakers from both parties have invoked President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 tax act as a model of comprehensiveness and bipartisanship that they should be striving for, but those who lived through that experience say that bold promises of rewriting the tax code in the next few months sound naïve.

Reagan’s tax act was two years in the making and in many ways a response to the ill effects of the tax cuts that he had passed in 1981. His Treasury Department released hundreds of pages of policy details before Congress began bipartisan brokering.

Former Senator Robert Packwood, the Oregon Republican who was the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee in 1986, recalled the close relationship between Reagan; James A. Baker III, his Treasury secretary; and Richard G. Darman, who was Mr. Baker’s deputy.

“He had a lot of government experience, and he was sensational at being able to speak for the administration,” Mr. Packwood said of Mr. Darman. “I don’t know if there’s an insider in Treasury like a Darman that everybody would have faith in on the congressional side.”

To be sure, there were clashes and second-guessing within Reagan’s team and with Congress in the early 1980s. The fact that those issues were overcome suggests it is not too late for the Trump economic team to find its footing.

Mr. Pearlman noted that it remains early in the process, and that Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Cohn remain major players. Moreover, the daily distractions are not likely to faze those who are crunching the numbers.

“My guess is that the staff will work as if nothing is going on,” Mr. Pearlman said.

Some Democrats said they had been impressed by the intelligence and business perspective of Mr. Trump’s economic advisers, in spite of their occasional bursts of New York bravado. And Democrats who attended Wednesday’s White House meeting credited Mr. Trump for his professed openness to working with them.

Still, Representative Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat who went to the meeting, worried that their input was coming too late in the process.

“The first bipartisan meeting where tax reform was a serious topic was the one convened by President Trump. That was a good thing,” Mr. Welch said. “But I don’t think it is going to cure the partisan nature of the secret process that has been long underway.”

Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, recalled Mr. Cohn’s coming to his office this year and vowing to rip the tax code up by its roots and revolutionize the system.

“I said to him: ‘I want you to know something. Six secretaries of the Treasury have sat there and told me exactly what you’ve told me,’” Mr. Neal said.

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