The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New analysis undercuts the White House argument that tax reform benefits the middle class

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks to representatives of the media during the daily briefing at the White House on Thursday. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Shortly after the House passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the Republican majority’s version of President Trump’s tax reform effort, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about how that bill and one moving through the Senate accomplishes the president’s goals.

“The tax bill passed by the House today: One of the things that the tax bill does is increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion,” a reporter asked Sanders. “I know the White House has argued that that will be paid by growing the economy, but if the economy doesn’t grow, how do you square that with the Republican view — or general principle that deficits are bad?”

“I mean, I just disagree with the premise of the question,” she replied. “We do expect the economy to grow. We’ve seen that happen over the last 10 months, and we expect that to continue.”

This is an odd argument, for two reasons. The first is that the economy was growing well before the past 10 months; that is, well before Trump took office. The last time America’s gross domestic product didn’t increase quarter-over-quarter was in the first quarter of 2014. It’s also an odd argument because Sanders is using the current levels of growth as a way to demonstrate that growth will continue — though she introduced her comments during the briefing by arguing that the tax reform bill was needed to be “the rocket fuel for our economy” that will “bring back our jobs … bring back our wealth” and “bring back our great American dreams.” The economy is growing, which is why the White House isn’t worried about the deficits built in to the tax bill — but the tax bill is needed to get the economy going.

But Sanders’s trickier rhetorical move came a bit later, when she was asked whether the president supported the House bill or the Senate bill.

“Both bills achieve the president’s priorities,” she said. “That’s been his focus: tax cuts for middle-class families; simplifying the tax code; slashing tax for businesses of all sizes so that they can grow, create jobs, raise wages for their workers and compete in the global marketplace. He’s laid out those priorities. Right now, both of those pieces of legislation do that, and that’s what he’s been focused on throughout the process.”

That’s not true.

Hours before Sanders spoke, the Joint Committee on Taxation — a nonpartisan congressional committee that evaluates tax bills — released its assessment of the Senate tax bill. By 2019, its analysis determined, Americans at every income level would see a cut in their taxes. By 2027, though, anyone making under $75,000 a year would see a tax increase, while those earning more than that would continue to enjoy a tax cut. Overall, Americans will see higher taxes in 2027 under the Senate bill, according to the JCT’s analysis.

One of the reasons that the House bill passed on Thursday is that it didn’t face much public opposition, in part thanks to the Republican majority moving the bill quickly to the floor and to a vote. In the Senate, with a smaller Republican majority, that will be trickier. Analysis showing that the measure leads to a long-term tax increase on those making less than $75,000 a year — a group that most would consider middle-income — will certainly give some senators pause.

Polling from Quinnipiac University released on Wednesday shows that this is precisely the concern of most Americans. Only 25 percent of the country supports the Republican tax measure in the abstract, with most saying that they think that the wealthy will benefit from the proposal.

What’s more, many see the proposals as benefiting the wealthy at the expense of the middle class — including more than 1 in 5 Republicans.

Nonetheless, Sanders stuck to her guns. A reporter later noted that some Republicans voted against the House bill because they understood that the bill would increase taxes on their constituents. What would the president say, Sanders was asked, to those who voted for Trump and may see a tax increase?

“The president’s still incredibly focused. He’s laid out his priorities of making sure that this tax plan helps those in the middle class, and that’s exactly what it does,” she replied.

That rhetoric did not include any data to back it up.