At the start of an interview with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) on Wednesday morning, NPR's David Greene sought to make one thing clear about a Republican tax bill on the verge of becoming law.
“Everyone agrees that most Americans are going to see some sort of tax cut in the immediate future,” Greene said.
Indeed, the final analysis by the oft-cited Tax Policy Center concluded that “compared to current law, taxes would fall for all income groups on average in 2018, increasing overall average after-tax income by 2.2 percent.”
Yet this fact was buried in many news reports that emphasized other points first. The opening sentence in an Associated Press article described the tax bill as “deeply unpopular.” The top of a New York Times page-one story Wednesday said that Republicans had “steamrolled their previous concerns over adding to the federal budget deficit.” The lead story on CNN's “New Day” morning show described the bill as “disproportionately helping corporations and wealthy Americans.”
These are true statements — and some of the reasons that coverage of the GOP's effort to overhaul the tax code has often been negative. I'll elaborate on these and a few other reasons below.
1. Big earners are the biggest winners
As noted above, the Tax Policy Center projected that the bill would increase Americans' after-tax incomes by an average of 2.2 percent. In raw dollar amounts, a 2.2 percent boost is (obviously) greater for a $1 million household than it is for a $50,000 household.
“The people who already pay the highest taxes will naturally benefit from a tax reduction, but not the largest percent benefit,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said while defending the tax plan during an Oct. 30 media briefing.
It turns out, however, that high-income households will enjoy the largest percent benefit, after all. The 2.2 percent increase in after-tax income is merely an average and, according to the Tax Policy Center, low-income households will increase their incomes by smaller percentages — not only by smaller dollar amounts — than high-income households.
Also, individual tax cuts will expire after 10 years, but corporate tax cuts are permanent.
“We have every intent of making those [individual cuts] permanent” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters Tuesday. “Because of the Senate rules, you know why that sunset is there.”
This is a way to dismiss the Tax Policy Center's projection that a slight majority of Americans will actually pay more in taxes by 2027, after the individual cuts expire. Ryan contended that Congress won't really let the cuts disappear but is bound by Senate rules to set an expiration date, for now.
What the speaker neglected to mention is that Republicans have to play by these rules only because they decided to use a special budgeting process that allowed them to pass the tax bill in the Senate with just 51 votes, rather than the 60 ordinarily required to block a filibuster.
2. There was never even a pretense of bipartisanship
The special budgeting process I just mentioned is called reconciliation. In practical terms, reconciliation meant that from the outset, Republicans did not need to bring any Democrats on board. It also meant that the bill was emblematic of political polarization in Washington.
3. Republicans were unable to build public support
Polls consistently show that only about 30 percent of Americans favor the GOP tax plan. Sanders told reporters Tuesday that Trump is “making good on his promise to deliver tax cuts for Christmas,” but voters clearly are not convinced that they want the president's holiday gift.
A New York Times report on the day that President George W. Bush signed his tax-cut bill into law, in 2001, noted Bush's “relentless salesmanship around the country.” A majority of Americans approved of Bush's tax plan.
Trump did not engage in Bush-like salesmanship, and he did not achieve Bush-like support. In fact, Trump seemed to undermine congressional Republicans' effort to market the plan as a middle-class tax cut, at its core, when he said during a Cabinet meeting Wednesday that corporate tax cuts are “probably the biggest factor in this plan.”
“I don't think we've done a good job messaging,” Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) conceded Tuesday.
4. Trump made the dubious claim that he won't benefit from the tax bill
“This is going to cost me a fortune, this thing, believe me,” Trump said in November. “This is not good for me. . . . I think my accountants are going crazy right now.”
As NBC's Hallie Jackson pointed out during Tuesday's White House news briefing, the president's claim is impossible to verify because he has not released his tax returns.
“The fact that the president has refused to release his tax returns should not allow him to make claims about his taxes without offering documented proof,” The Washington Post Fact Checker wrote last month. “The information we do have — the partial 2005 return — shows his claim of losing a fortune on the tax bill is poppycock.”
5. GOP budget hawks are suddenly willing to add to the national debt
Flip-flops are express tickets to unfavorable news coverage. Republicans often bemoan the size of the national debt yet were willing to increase it by as much as $1.5 trillion to pay for tax cuts. Even accounting for economic growth under the tax plan, the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that the GOP bill would add about $1 trillion to the debt.
In one of the most notable reversals, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) voted for the bill after saying in October that if “we're adding one penny to the deficit, I am not going to be for it.”
6. The House had to vote twice because of procedural mistakes in the Senate
The House and Senate were expected to pass identical bills on Tuesday, but after the House held up its end of the bargain, Senate rule-keepers determined that the GOP tax plan needed a few minor tweaks. That meant the House had to vote again on a slightly altered bill on Wednesday, ultimately passing it.
The re-vote is not a huge deal, but Republicans' apparent sloppiness contributes to the perception that they tried to rush a bill to Trump's desk so that the president could claim a major legislative victory before the end of the year.
These are some of the main reasons that coverage of the GOP tax bill has been negative, despite the upfront increase in take-home pay for the vast majority of Americans. Whether they justify the media's tone is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.
But it is, at minimum, an oversimplification to attribute unfavorable coverage to some ideological opposition to conservative policies. The process that led to passage of the Republican tax plan was plagued by misleading claims, lousy poll numbers, contradictions and hard-line partisanship — all of which attract bad press.