The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s false claim that ‘congressional Republicans’ want to raise taxes

(Evan Vucci/AP)
10 min

“After their massive tax giveaway to the superwealthy and giant corporations in 2017, congressional Republicans now want to raise taxes on middle class families. I won’t let that happen.”

— President Biden, in a tweet, April 18

“Under the Congressional Republican Tax Plan:

-$100 billion will be taken out of the hands of middle class families each year

-24 million families of seniors making less than $100,000 per year would face tax increases”

— The White House, in a tweet, April 18

Federal income taxes were due on Monday, and the White House marked the occasion by criticizing “congressional Republicans” for proposing a massive tax increase on the middle class. The plan has provided a rare opportunity for Democrats, who are frequently tagged as tax increasers by Republicans.

But, wait, who are these congressional Republicans? In her daily press briefing on Monday, press secretary Jen Psaki carefully offered a detail that somehow did not make it into the social media accounts: “The congressional Republican plan, however, as Senator Rick Scott outlined … now, led by Senator Scott, Republicans want to raise taxes on the middle class.”

Scott, the junior senator from Florida, is chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and thus part of the Senate leadership. But is it fair to say he represents the views of congressional Republicans?

The Facts

In February, Scott released a 60-page “11-point plan to rescue America” that offered 128 proposals. In his introductory letter, he noted that “this plan is not for the faint of heart.” That’s for sure — buried on page 34, at the end of a long list of ways purported to combat socialism, was this idea: “All Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game, even if a small amount. Currently over half of Americans pay no income tax.”

For Democrats, this line was political gold. It harks back to a controversial comment made by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, now a senator from Utah, at a private fundraising event in 2012: “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president [Barack Obama] no matter what … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims … these are people who pay no income tax.”

In reality, fewer than 17 percent of households pay no federal tax; even those who earn too little to owe income tax still pay payroll taxes (for Social Security and Medicare) and excise taxes. But tax provisions such as the child tax credit — expanded often with the support of congressional Republicans — over time have eliminated federal income tax liability for many families. Romney was suggesting he could not get votes from people who did not pay taxes — “[my] job is not to worry about those people” — but unlike Scott, he did not propose to raise their taxes.

Scott provided no details on his plan and offered no proposed legislative language. But his idea filled a policy vacuum. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the Senate Republican leader, already had dismissed the idea of issuing a policy platform before the midterm elections. House Republicans, led by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), are said to be working on a policy agenda titled “Commitment to America,” but it won’t be released until the summer.

The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center (TPC) quickly ran the numbers on what would happen if every unmarried filer had to pay at least $100 in income taxes and every couple had to pay $200. Just that concept would increase taxes by $100 billion in 2022, with more than 80 percent of the increase paid by households making $54,000 or less, the TPC found. Psaki cited the study in her briefing, as did the White House tweets, but the TPC report plainly stated that this was only “a simple version consistent with [Scott’s] idea.”

Separately, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimated what the impact would be if every taxpayer would be required to just pay one dollar. That still would increase taxes by more than $1,000 on average for the poorest 40 percent of Americans. How is that possible? Even a dollar requirement would wipe out refundable tax credits that result in some households getting a check from the government.

But these analyses would carry more weight if Republicans had rushed to embrace Scott’s idea. Instead, he’s been left on a policy island.

Some Republicans, such as Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, have broadly praised Scott for delivering a policy document. But, as far as we can tell, not a single other Republican in Congress has embraced Scott’s specific tax proposal. Politico contacted 27 Republican Senate campaigns asking whether their candidate agreed with Scott’s income tax proposal — and none endorsed it. The other four members of the Senate leadership, including McConnell, either directly or implicitly criticized Scott for the plan.

“We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half of the American people and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years,” McConnell told reporters March 1. “That will not be part of a Republican Senate majority agenda.” (Scott also proposed having every law lapse after five years, requiring Congress to renew even popular programs like Social Security.)

The day after McConnell’s rebuke, Scott told the Hill newspaper that he was open to changes and insisted the tax plan could be attributed only to him: “This is what Rick Scott believes in, it’s not the Republican plan. I was very clear that it’s Rick Scott’s policy ideas. It’s nobody else’s policy ideas.”

Indeed, the plan was issued by Scott’s own campaign committee, not any GOP or Senate committee. The document says: “Paid for by Rick Scott for Florida.” His campaign committee also paid for the video ad that accompanied the release of the document, as well as a website to promote it. Occasionally, NRSC’s communications director, Chris Hartline, has tweeted about the tax plan, but he said his “tweets are not meant to be an endorsement from the NRSC. I also act as a spokesman for Sen. Scott in his personal political capacity.”

More recently, Scott has suggested the line in his document was misinterpreted. “Retirees have already paid plenty into the system. And working-class Americans are already paying into the system, whether through income tax, payroll tax, state and local taxes,” he wrote on April 11 in the Daily Caller. “My proposal wouldn’t change anything for them, but we should find ways to reduce their tax burden.”

Instead, he said there are “two categories of folks” who needed to pay their fair share: “able-bodied, working-age Americans” who refuse to work and “some very wealthy people who can hire an army of lobbyists, lawyers and accountants to avoid paying their fair share.”

Frankly, Scott is changing the meaning of his words without officially abandoning the plank in his published plan. He wrote that “all Americans should pay some income tax” but now says payroll and sales taxes should count as well.

Howard Gleckman, author of the TPC report, told The Fact Checker that even this significantly downscaled revision does not make much sense, as it is unclear how Scott would identify able-bodied people who do not work. (A Scott spokesperson did not respond to a query about his proposed enforcement mechanism.)

“Most government ‘handouts’ to the poor are available only to those who do work — the Earned Income Tax Credit, the nonrefundable portion of the child tax credit, most Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits all have work/income requirements (though SNAP limits are waived during the public health emergency),” Gleckman said in an email. “Even Medicaid now has a work requirement in some states.”

Gleckman added that few wealthy people would be affected. “As to the very high-income, almost none of them pay zero tax,” he said. “They can use tax avoidance techniques to substantially reduce their tax liability, but they rarely get down to zero.”

Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, spearheaded an effort to have most Republican lawmakers sign a pledge that they would never vote to raise taxes. Because of the tax pledge, Norquist’s views carry significant weight among congressional Republicans. He’s been highly critical of Scott’s idea, noting that it cuts across the grain of efforts in Republican-led states to remove more lower-income citizens from income tax rolls.

“The White House is not telling the truth when they call Rick Scott’s written tax plank ‘the Republican plan,’ ” Norquist said. “That is factually inaccurate. This written tax plank is Rick Scott by himself. There is zero support for his personal written tax plank among congressional Republicans. Democrats are at a tremendous disadvantage on the tax issue, so they desperately cling to Rick Scott’s clumsily written two-sentence tax plank that is his and his alone, and going nowhere.”

White House spokesman Michael J. Gwin defended using the phrase “congressional Republicans.”

“Senator Scott is a member of Republican Congressional leadership and released a plan which he made clear was an agenda for the Republican Senate going forward, to raise taxes on half of all Americans,” Gwin said in a statement. “That plan has been endorsed by the RNC Chair, defended by the Senate Republican campaign arm funded by all Republican senators, and echoes what President Trump has argued and what Republicans have been saying for years. If Congressional Republicans have an alternate plan they should release it, but this is now the only plan on the table from Republican Congressional Leadership. President Biden couldn’t disagree more with this approach — instead of hiking taxes on the middle class, he wants to cut taxes for tens of millions of working Americans and lower the deficit by asking billionaires and big corporations to pay their fair share.”

The Pinocchio Test

Scott’s tax plan is certainly ripe for political fodder, but the White House is pushing its luck here. Scott is a Republican, and he is in Congress and part of the GOP leadership. But his snippet of an idea, such as it is, cannot be labeled a “congressional Republican” plan. No legislation has been crafted, and no other Republican lawmakers have announced their support.

One cannot instantly assume every person in a political party supports a proposal by a prominent member. We’re reminded a bit of how hard the Trump presidential campaign tried to falsely tag Biden with ownership of the “radical” Green New Deal, a congressional resolution written in part by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), even though Biden had his own more moderate plan to address climate change.

Scott has already publicly amended the idea in ways that make the instant analysis cited by the White House less relevant. But he has not officially abandoned the original language and the idea still does technically exist on paper — at a time when there are few competing policy platforms issued by congressional Republicans.

That last point was the only thing that kept us, just barely, from giving this claim a Four-Pinocchio rating. The White House earns Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

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