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Opinion The child tax credit should be on both parties’ lame-duck agenda

Children draw on top of a prop in the form of a canceled check at the Capitol in December during a rally urging lawmakers to extend the expanded child tax credit. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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Democrats have been taking a victory lap after retaining control of the Senate and losing fewer House seats than expected. But they ultimately didn’t keep the House, which means the time to get their priorities through is running short.

Lots of urgent items are already crowding Congress’s “lame duck” agenda, including just keeping the lights on. I dearly hope Democrats will not squander their remaining opportunity to cement a legacy-defining achievement: slashing child poverty, hopefully for good.

Now is the Democrats’ last best chance to expand the child tax credit until at least 2025, because many of the Republicans making up the House majority next year have signaled plans for legislative gridlock at best, and chaos at worst. If Democrats have any hope of getting this priority through this Congress, they will need to win over a few Republican Senate allies in an end-of-year deal — perhaps by wooing some of the moderates retiring in January, who might care about their own party’s legacy, too.

Historically, the child tax credit has enjoyed bipartisan support. It has been expanded under Republican and Democratic presidents alike. The most recent expansion, enacted through Democrats’ 2021 American Rescue Plan, was remarkably far-reaching: It massively increased the maximum amount of the credit; made even the poorest of poor kids newly eligible; and divvied up the credit into monthly installments so families had some regular, reliable funds coming in.

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Eligible families could then use this stipend to budget for such expenses as a school cheerleading registration fee or a tooth-fairy payout, a homecoming dress or Christmas presents. However they saw fit.

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Stories of how these child allowances changed individual lives are plentiful, and often quite moving. The national effect was miraculous: Child poverty rates fell nearly in half in 2021 from a year earlier, according to census data, reaching the lowest level ever recorded.

But the expanded program was temporary and expired this year. Efforts to extend it through another Democratic-votes-only budget bill, known as “Build Back Better,” failed. There are still chances of reviving a scaled-down version before year’s end — if Democrats can persuade Republican senators to include it in a broader bipartisan budget or tax package.

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Some Democratic lawmakers are working to bundle an extension of the child tax credit with corporate tax breaks that the business lobby wants extended. Here’s a reasonable line for Democrats to hold: no tax breaks for corporations unless poor kids get something, too.

I hope a few key Republicans will embrace this trade — not merely viewing it as a concession in exchange for corporate tax breaks, but as a family support whose expansion is in Republicans’ interest, as well.

Perhaps this sounds naive. But some family-oriented Republican senators have already proposed their own versions of a child allowance program. Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) has introduced multiple proposals on this front, including one this year co-sponsored by fellow Republican Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.), who is retiring soon, and Steve Daines (Mont.). Some other retiring Republicans are rumored to be gettable, too.

Some of their more populist colleagues who are sticking around, such as Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.), have memorably declared that the GOP must become a “working class party, not a Wall Street party.”

Given the GOP’s underperformance in the midterms, now is a good time for more of its members to demonstrate their commitment to the financial well-being of working-class families. A child benefit program is an ideal vehicle for doing so.

Republican candidates were undoubtedly hurt this cycle by the Supreme Court decision striking down the right to abortion. The GOP has struggled to show that it is not merely antiabortion but actively pro-child and pro-family, given Republicans’ reluctance to back other family supports such as child care, paid leave or postpartum medical coverage.

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The child tax credit, however, is a conservative-friendly way to help strapped families, including those now facing unplanned or unwanted pregnancies. It offers families the dignity of deciding for themselves how best to allocate funds to improve their kids’ lives, rather than having Big Government dictate choices. The child credit is also neutral on whether parents use funds to pay for private child-care services or to support stay-at-home parenting, which might appeal to more traditional families.

It would be foolish for family-oriented Republicans to cede this issue to Democrats going forward, even if the most recent expansion of the child tax credit passed by a party-line vote. Likewise, it’s risky for Democrats to rebrand the child credit as a solely Democratic priority, expanded only begrudgingly by Republicans — at least if Democrats want a more robust program to endure, and for it not to become a political target of future Republican congresses.

The election might be over, but Democrats have a lot of unfinished business. So do Republicans and the millions of families relying on them both.