WASHINGTON ― While Republicans on the campaign trail have largely dropped the tax cut bill from their midterm messaging, GOP leadership is gearing up for another round of tax headlines anyway ― with a House bill that would turn the temporary tax cuts Congress passed last year into permanent ones.
The measure has no real shot in the Senate and won’t become law, barring some miraculous change of heart among Senate Democrats or a last-minute scramble from the GOP to jam through another reconciliation vehicle. The bill is truly just a messaging opportunity, a chance for Republicans to once again champion their already-passed tax cut bill and bash Democrats.
But the funny thing about the tax cut bill is Republicans are hardly talking about it.
According to data compiled by Kantar Media/CMAG for HuffPost, just under 12 percent of all GOP TV ads have mentioned the new tax bill so far this year. That’s out of 396,607 TV spots that have aired this year ― a total of 1,039 individual ads. The supposed centerpiece of the GOP’s agenda is merely a footnote.
More broadly, taxes are still a top issue for Republicans. Of the nearly 400,000 ads that were analyzed, just under 30 percent mention taxes in some form ― a higher percentage than any other single issue. But candidates seem to be avoiding mentions of the tax bill specifically.
That makes sense in one regard: The legislation has limited popularity. The bill’s approval rating has far more often than not been underwater, with support generally floating in the 30s and 40s, and the bill has become less popular since February, when support for the measure peaked.
Shortly after the GOP tax bill became law, corporate America responded with waves of press releases about how companies would give their workers bonuses. It was an impressive charm offensive that obscured the smallness of the bonuses compared to the huge tax windfall corporations received.
But like the money itself, the news stories about $300 bonuses are long gone, and most voters now sense that they may have gotten a raw deal compared to the corporations that saw their tax burdens fall by 40 percent.
The tax bill Republicans rushed to President Donald Trump’s desk last December paired a deep tax cut for corporations with a modest cut for households. But the household part will expire at the end of 2025, causing most individual taxes to revert to their 2017 setting. Republicans made the individual tax cuts temporary in order to comply with a budget constraint they set for themselves earlier in the year. The budget process allowed them to fast-track their bill through the Senate, but it limited the total cost of the measure to $1.5 trillion over a decade.
The heart of this new tax proposal, which will likely get committee approval in the House on Thursday, is to make the temporary part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act permanent ― even though doing so will add another $631 billion to the national debt in the current 10-year window, according to the independent Tax Policy Center.
Although Republicans look to use this upcoming vote as a cudgel against Democrats, showing that the other party would eventually raise taxes, Democrats point to the fiscal irresponsibility of Republicans adding even more money to the national debt as a result of their tax bill.
“It’s preposterous,” Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), a top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said in an interview Wednesday. “It adds hundreds of billions to the deficit and it isn’t going anywhere. It’s not going to be passed in the Senate.”
While Republicans are taking the focus off of their tax bill, lawmakers generally reported that they were still talking about the issue in their races, even as they admitted that it maybe wasn’t as popular as they had anticipated.
“There are some members that don’t want to talk about tax cuts in their district,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the pro-Trump House Freedom Caucus, told HuffPost on Wednesday. But Meadows said when he talks about the new proposal in his district, “it consistently gets at least applause and sometimes standing ovations.”
Rep. Tom MacArthur, the only Republican in New Jersey who voted for the tax bill, told HuffPost he wasn’t running away from the tax bill at all.
“I’m leaning into it,” he said.
And Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) said Wednesday that the tax cut was the focus of his re-election efforts, though he suggested that some of the unpopularity of the bill may be due to a lack of wage growth, which he blamed on the unemployment rate. But as the economy reaches full employment, Loudermilk said, wages would naturally go up as a function of supply and demand in the job market.
“People who may have not seen it as much in their lives ... they’re starting to see the effects of it now,” he said.
That doesn’t change the fact, however, that Republicans and GOP-aligned groups still aren’t focusing on the tax bill to make the case to voters ahead of the November midterms.
Corry Bliss, the executive director of the GOP leadership-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund, once argued that Republicans would stake their re-election bids on tax cuts. “There is no positive outcome in November if we do not show that we cut taxes for the middle class and are working to make their lives better,” Bliss wrote in a GOP memo in January. “Period.”
But now, with voters still expressing as much opposition to the GOP bill as support, CLF is running Republican ads based more on culture wars than taxes.
One thinly veiled ad paints Antonio Delgado, an African-American Democratic candidate in New York, as a “disturbingly radical” rapper. (Delgado, in addition to being a Rhodes scholar and Harvard Law graduate, released a rap album in 2006 criticizing things like the Iraq War and the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.)
Another CLF ad paints Ohio Democratic candidate Aftab Pureval as a lobbyist who helped Libya reduce payments to terrorism victims. “Selling out Americans?” the ad asks. “Aftab Pureval can’t be trusted.”
Except Pureval never worked on the bilateral agreement between the United States and Libya to pay families of victims of a 1988 bombing. Instead, the ad relies on connections to the firm Pureval worked for ― one of the largest in the country ― and his name, to suggest Pureval might be associated with terrorists.
In another district, CLF is running an ad that argues New Jersey Democrat Tom Malinowski “lobbied for terrorists’ rights.” The truth is that Malinowski, as a lobbyist for Human Rights Watch, argued for “access to courts for enemy combatants held at Guantanamo Bay and other locations.”
And there are numerous other examples of misleading attacks, funded by CLF, that have nothing to do with taxes.
It’s a similar story in the Senate, where the National Republican Senate Committee is attacking Democrats more for culture war issues than for their record on the tax bill. A recent ad against Joe Manchin hits the West Virginia Democrat for owning a yacht. One against Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) says she supports illegal immigration. The hit on Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, Republican Sen. Dean Heller’s opponent in Nevada, attacks her business record.
Democrats were all too happy Wednesday to suggest that was because Republicans know the policy intentions behind their bill just aren’t popular.
“Who in their right mind would be proud of the fact that they passed a bill designed largely to subsidize the lives of the rich and shameless?” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (R-N.Y.) asked HuffPost.
Ariel Edwards-Levy contributed reporting.