Republicans have been touting the number of companies handing out employee bonuses and pay raises — such as Walmart and Bank of America — as a surprising sign that the Trump administration's tax cuts are working their economic magic faster than anyone expected.
"It really is unbelievable to see just how many companies have stepped up," House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) told Fox Business. White House chief economic adviser Gary Cohn described it as "not even something we expected to see." President Trump has tweeted eight times on the topic, calling the bonuses "an unexpected new source of 'love.' "
And they've been keeping careful count, too. Staffers in Scalise's office constantly update a running list of which companies have joined in, under the headline "Tax Reform Works."
But a deeper look at the list of approximately 200 companies shows that more than economics is probably at play, with business experts and analysts saying that alternative motivations are likely to be behind the sudden flood of corporate generosity. One major Republican donor owns 11 of the firms on the list. Several companies are contending with problems with regulators in Trump's administration. And so many companies have settled on the $1,000 bonus figure that it appears, to some, to be just as much about a public relations push as anything else.
"It's a pretty cheap way to win goodwill on Capitol Hill," Daniel Shaviro, a professor of taxation at New York University Law School, said of the companies. He said there is "no plausible theory" for rate reductions immediately resulting in bonuses. The argument for corporate tax cuts is they spur investment, which raises productivity and should boost wages over the long term — not in a few weeks, he said.
"It's salesmanship," said Aparna Mathur, an economist with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who expects it will take three to four years for workers to see the benefits of tax cuts.
Mihir Desai, a finance professor at Harvard Business School whose research was used by the White House to estimate how tax cuts would boost workers' wages, said he believed the recent wave of bonuses could reflect lower tax rates but also an effort "to take some of the heat off what corporations are currently feeling."
The "heat" comes from reactions to a measure that permanently slashes corporate rates from 35 percent to 21 percent, while only temporarily lowering rates for individuals. A Gallup poll released last week found that just 33 percent approve of the tax law.
Companies didn't wait for Trump to sign the bill into law to begin touting benefits for workers.
AT&T went first, saying it would give a $1,000 "special bonus" to more than 200,000 U.S. workers. Several critics noted that AT&T is fighting a Justice Department challenge to its pending merger with Time Warner. Later that same day, Comcast announced a $1,000 bonus for its workers, a week after the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal net neutrality, to the cable company's delight.
Soon, more companies chimed in. And people began to keep track. The American Bankers Association started a list. So did Americans for Tax Reform. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has one. California vintner John Jordan, a major GOP donor, launched a website called "1 Country 1k" to encourage business owners to pledge $1,000 bonuses for workers.
The list kept by Scalise's office culls from these sources and House Republicans who were asked to help identify businesses in their districts. Chris Bond, the congressman's communications director, criticized House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for describing the benefits given to workers as "crumbs" compared with the corporate tax savings.
"These are meaningful benefits," Bond said.
But it remains doubtful that many American workers will see their employers added to the list. A recent Morgan Stanley survey of analysts found that only 22 percent expect companies to direct at least some of the tax-overhaul gains to increased worker compensation. Most analysts said the tax savings would fund share buybacks, dividends, and mergers and acquisitions.
For companies that made the list, a $1,000 bonus was the most common benefit, offered by about 40 percent of firms — no matter the company's size or the anticipated impact of the tax cut.
These bonuses are "tokens" of appreciation, said Iwan Barankay, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Companies prefer to give bonuses to workers because they are temporary.
Banks dominate the list, with about 65 out of the nation's approximately 5,000 banks announcing plans to give workers extra compensation.
The banking industry is expected to see earnings soar 13 percent under the new tax law, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence analysts. And the total cost of worker pay raises and bonuses is projected to amount to just 1.75 percent of industry expenses.
"There's a PR element to it," said banking consultant Bert Ely.
At least six public utilities have announced plans to trim power rates because of the tax law, such as Baltimore Gas and Electric, which said its residential electric customers should save $2.31 a month.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) put out a news release spotlighting how the tax law persuaded the Assurant insurance company to alter a planned merger that would have moved the New York firm's tax domicile to Bermuda. "This is a big deal," Ryan wrote. "Real hardworking Americans will keep their jobs."
But an Assurant representative said that while the tax law changed its plans to move on paper to Bermuda, jobs were never at stake: "We had no plans to move U.S. jobs offshore as a result of this transaction."
Eleven companies on the list are owned by Frank VanderSloot, the richest man in Idaho. VanderSloot opted to give his 2,350 employees a $100 bonus for every year they have worked for him, up to $2,000. His largest company is Melaleuca, an online wellness shopping club based in Idaho Falls.
"This is a windfall to us. We ought to be spreading it around," VanderSloot said. "I wanted to make sure I'm not guilty of what the ultraliberal people accuse us of — which is sticking it all in your own pocket."
He also challenged other companies in southeast Idaho to follow suit. Seventeen signed up. VanderSloot — directly or indirectly — is responsible for 27 of the companies on the tax reform list. One of them is Colling Pest Control, which is offering a $100 bonus per quarter to each worker, office manager Marquee Rasmuson said. The firm is small, fewer than 10 employees.
"But this is going to be beneficial to us," Rasmuson said.
Another major Republican donor and early Trump supporter, Roddey Dowd, announced a $1,000 bonus for the 1,400 workers at Charlotte Pipe and Foundry, where he is chief executive. Bradford Muller, the foundry's head of marketing, said the bonus was "a gesture" aimed at getting workers to "realize that what people do in Washington affects their lives every day."
The announcement came just two weeks after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — with a new director appointed by Trump — said it was suspending its investigation of Nexus Services on allegations of "unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts and practices."
Donovan said in a statement that he "emphatically denies" any connection between the agency's decision and the pay raises.
Two federal student loan collectors, Navient and its subsidiary Pioneer Credit Recovery, announced $1,000 bonuses for most of their workers amid ongoing lawsuits by the consumer protection agency and attorneys general in three states for allegedly misleading borrowers. Navient's contract with the Education Department expires after 2019.
"They have a lot on the line," said Persis Yu, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, which has had "a lot of problems" with Navient and Pioneer.
Pioneer was dropped by the Education Department in 2015 from its lucrative contract collecting past-due federal student debt after an agency audit. But the Trump administration said last year that it would disregard the audit's findings. Pioneer returned to making student loan collections last month.
A spokeswoman for Navient and Pioneer denied any connection between the $1,000 bonuses and its other business with the federal government.