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Sen. Kamala Harris’s 2020 policy agenda: $3 trillion tax plan, tax credits for renters, bail reform, Medicare for all

A guide to the California Democrat’s policy platform.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) declared her candidacy on Jan. 21 and became the fourth woman to enter the 2020 presidential race. (Video: Melissa Macaya/The Washington Post)
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Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) will run for president proposing a nearly $3 trillion tax plan, billions in tax credits to low-income renters, a Medicare-for-all health-care system, and a reduction in cash bail for inmates charged with criminal offenses, her aides said.

Harris announced her candidacy Monday.

Aides said Harris’s platform will incorporate Sen. Bernie Sanders’s Medicare-for-all health-care proposal, while also pushing enormous tax relief intended to help low-income renters and boost incomes for working-class families.

In that combination, Harris appears to be unique. Several other liberal presidential candidates favor Medicare-for-all and new government spending programs. For instance, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) will tout her plan to create a universal paid leave program, while Julián Castro, who was an official in the Obama administration, will propose universal prekindergarten, funded by the federal government.

Harris, by contrast, is expected to run on both a single-payer health program projected to cost more than $30 trillion, as well as tax benefits that would significantly reduce federal revenue. Supporters say that reflects her willingness to try to use different solutions to solve big problems.

“She understands you can change society by writing laws, or by bringing a bunch of CEOs to the table,” said Daniel Suvor, who served for three years as Harris’s chief of policy while she was attorney general of California and who considers himself a friend of Harris.

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But some critics on the left, who have begun scrutinizing Harris’s record as a prosecutor in California, are likely to question whether cutting tax revenue will make it more difficult to enact the kinds of social programs that have become increasingly popular among the Democratic base. Conservatives, meanwhile, already have criticized Harris’s tax plan as being prohibitively expensive at a time when annual deficits are approaching $1 trillion.

Harris will also run on legislation to improve elections security, citing Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, as well as a proposal to reduce the racial gap for black women in the risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes, campaign aides said.

Here’s a look at the policy ideas Harris hopes will carry her to the White House:

$2.8 trillion middle-class tax plan. Last fall, Harris released a proposal aimed at enacting a tax plan for middle- and working-class families, and it will be a centerpiece of her presidential campaign, her aides said.

Under Harris’s plan, the federal government would pay tax credits that match a person’s earnings up to $3,000 (or $6,000 for married couples). Those credits would phase out for higher earners, and would not benefit Americans with no earnings, in an attempt to reward people who work.

“Americans are working harder than ever, but stagnant wages mean they can’t keep up with cost-of-living increases,” Harris said at the time. “We should put money back into the pockets of American families.”

Harris’s tax plan was intended to contrast sharply with the Republican tax law President Trump signed in 2017. The richest 1 percent of Americans were projected to receive about 21 percent of the benefits from the GOP tax law in 2018, and 83 percent of its benefits in 2027, according to the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank. Only 17.4 percent of the benefits from the GOP tax cuts would go to the lower and middle classes, the center has found.

Almost all of Sen. Harris’s $2.8 trillion tax plan would help middle and working class, study finds

For Harris’s plan, that number is about 90 percent. But its cost would be high, adding $2.8 trillion to the federal deficit in its first 10 years and an additional $3.4 trillion in the following decade. Harris has proposed paying for the tax cut by eliminating the parts of the Republican tax law passed last fall that benefits the rich, as well as levying a new tax on large financial institutions.

Fiscal hawks say it would cost too much, even more than the GOP tax law, and that it would drive up an already soaring federal deficit. Those on the left have said Harris’s plan should also offer benefits to the poorest Americans, and they argued that it is difficult to explain to voters.

Matt Bruenig, founder of the People’s Policy Project, wrote that the plan reflects a policy design that “perversely exclude[s] the most needy from assistance in favor of those who are on the rung just above them.”

Rental relief. In 2018, Harris proposed legislation aimed at combating the high cost of rent in major U.S. cities.

The plan would give tax credits to renters who make less than $100,000 a year but spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent (including utilities) — a widely used gauge of housing affordability.

The size of the benefit increases for poorer families and decreases higher up the income distribution. The credit also would be refundable, meaning taxpayers could receive payments even if their tax liability were $0, and those in particularly expensive areas could earn up to $125,000 and still receive the credit.

Harris’s plan would benefit at least 13 million Americans and is similar to a plan written by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California at Berkeley, estimated to cost $76 billion.

Will Wilkinson, vice president for research at the libertarian-leaning Niskanen Center, said Harris’s plan to put additional money in the hands of renters may simply lead landlords to increase prices rather than address the scarcity of housing that cuts into renters' bargaining power.

“The problem with housing prices is a lack of housing supply relative to demand,” said Wilkinson, who has instead proposed creating a pot of federal funding to reward states that rapidly create new housing stock. “Cities need to build a lot more units, and fast. A tax credit for renters may take the edge off in the short term, but it does nothing about the fundamental problem and could even make the problem worse.”

Medicare-for-all: In August 2018, Harris announced that she would become the first Senate Democrat to co-sponsor Sanders’s Medicare-for-all bill to nationalize health insurance.

Medicare-for-all is a proposal to move every American to a single government-run insurer that charges no deductibles or premiums. Doing so would significantly increase government expenditures — by as much as $33 trillion over a ten-year period, according to one conservative think tank’s estimate — while offering health insurance to the Americans who lack it and preventing millions more from being forced into medical bankruptcy. It would require enormous tax increases to finance, although supporters maintain that they would be offset by zeroing out every family’s spending on premiums and deductibles.

At least four other declared presidential candidates — Gillibrand, Castro and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) — also say they support Medicare-for-all.

Reforming cash bail. A number of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have proposed plans to reform the current cash bail system, which disproportionately jails poor Americans who cannot make cash bail payments. According to a 2015 report from the Public Policy Institute of California, for instance, tens of thousands of inmates in the state sit behind bars simply because they cannot pay the state’s median bail amount of $50,000.

Harris has proposed legislation that would create a three-year $10 million grant program to encourage states to figure out how to find alternatives to their cash bail systems. The legislation is co-sponsored by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

“If they’re awaiting trial and they don’t pose a risk, let’s not have the taxpayers foot the bill, especially when a similarly situated person is not in jail because they could write a check,” Harris told McClatchy.

Other Democratic presidential candidates have also proposed changes to the cash bail system. Sanders, an independent from Vermont, has released a bill that would directly outlaw cash bail in the federal criminal justice system. The legislation, co-sponsored by Gillibrand, would also give states money to reform their bail systems, said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Justice Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

“The Harris bill would be helpful, but the Sanders-Gillibrand one is more aggressive,” Chettiar said. “The Harris bill would have an impact, but it’s hard to quantify.”