The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Are Democrats for working Americans or millionaires?

A sign is displayed as demonstrators at the U.S. Capitol call on Congress to pass President Biden's Build Back Better Act on Dec. 7. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
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Jared Golden, a Democrat, represents Maine’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the weeks ahead, Democrats in Congress will have to confront an existential question: Are we the party of the working class or the party of the millionaire class?

This decision point, long overdue, is the result of a last-minute effort by House leaders to include a tax break for 88 percent of millionaires via the state and local tax (SALT) deduction in Democrats’ Build Back Better Act. The provision, which costs $275 billion, is the single largest part of the bill as it stands. The policy is a huge, five-year tax break that overwhelmingly benefits millionaires and the very wealthy, making it more regressive than either the Donald Trump- or George W. Bush-era tax cuts. Tax breaks for millionaires were not what President Biden ran on, won on nor proposed as part of his agenda, and they should have no place in the Build Back Better legislation in Congress.

Democrats — and party leaders in particular — need to take a step back and ask themselves what it is we’re doing here. If we want to be the party of the working class, our priorities need to reflect those values. The support of Democratic leaders in Congress for this reverse Robin Hood tax policy sends a terrible message: that the price of building back the middle class begins by paying dividends to the millionaire shareholders who fund campaigns. This should not be the cost of doing business “for the people.”

Rather than look out for well-heeled donors, as party leaders have too often done, we should be doubling down on the priorities that a true working-class party would elevate. From that vantage point, the enhanced child tax credit is the perfect example of a policy that should be a higher priority for Democrats within the Build Back Better Act. The program, which offers a fully refundable $3,000 to $3,600 tax credit that goes mostly to lower- and middle-income families with children, has a well-known track record for reducing child poverty. Yet the bill funds the enhanced credit for just a single year. Why should millionaires receive a five-year tax break averaging more than $15,500, while working families have to settle for only one year of the enhanced child tax credit? There is no good answer to this question.

Fortunately, Democrats still have a chance to get SALT right. Now that the legislation is in the Senate, the SALT proposal is receiving greater scrutiny from senators, including Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), who are pressing for changes.

A good SALT deal would roll back the tax breaks for millionaires while protecting the small number of truly middle-class families who benefit from the deduction. Instead of raising the cap to $80,000 for households at all income levels, we could eliminate the cap completely and make the deduction available for only households making less than $175,000, essentially the bottom 80 percent of households in the country. At the very least, the Senate should reject any proposal that would allow the SALT deduction to go to anyone in the wealthiest 5 percent and ensure that no one in the top income quintile receives more years of SALT relief than working-class families receive in the enhanced child tax credit.

As Democratic leaders consider the direction of the party and who we stand with, they should look to congressional districts such as mine, which voted for former president Barack Obama twice before it did the same for Donald Trump. My constituents are hard-working people. They don’t make anywhere near $550,000 a year, one of the current SALT income thresholds under discussion, and they don’t think that the people who do make that much money need another federal tax break, no matter where they live. They have a healthy skepticism about the Washington establishment and suspect that no matter which party is in power, political elites tend to look out for themselves and their well-connected donors.

I share that skepticism, which is why I think it’s so important that we get this right. In the coming days, congressional Democrats will have the opportunity to put those suspicions to rest and send a clear signal about who we are for — the working class or the millionaire class. One thing is for certain: We cannot be both.