Catherine Rampell

New York, N.Y.

Catherine Rampell is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post. She frequently covers economics, public policy, immigration and politics, with a special emphasis on data-driven journalism. She is also an economic and political commentator for CNN, a special correspondent for the PBS NewsHour and a contributor to Marketplace. Before joining The Post, she wrote about economics and theater for the New York Times. Rampell has received the Weidenbaum Center Award for Evidence-Based Journalism and is a Gerald Loeb Award finalist. She grew up in Florida and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton University.

Sign up to receive Catherine Rampell's latest columns in your inbox as soon as they're published. Honors & Awards:
  • Weidenbaum Center Award for Evidence-Based Journalism, 2010
  • Gerald Loeb Award, Finalist, 2011
  • Gerald Loeb Award, Finalist, 2012
  • Gerald Loeb Award, Finalist, 2018
  • Gerald Loeb Award, Finalist, 2019
  • Gerald Loeb Award, Finalist, 2020
Recent Articles

CATHERINE RAMPELL COLUMN

Advance for release Friday, April 16, 2021, and thereafter

(For Rampell clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Catherine Rampell

Republican lawmakers have been casting about for reasons to oppose President Joe Biden's infrastructure plan, even though it looks an awful lot like initiatives they've supported in the past. Initially they complained about a too-expansive definition of "infrastructure," but that didn't seem to stick. Attacking the actual contents of the plan has been tricky too, since both the overall proposal and its individual components are popular among constituents. Aggressively opposing Biden's proposed investments in broadband or the electric grid or even elder care could easily backfire.

So, desperate Republicans have turned to their old standby, that last refuge of scoundrels: fearmongering about taxes.

Biden's proposal is paid for in part through a modest increase in corporate taxes. Whatever else might end up in the bill, Republicans say, opposition to this provision is their "nonnegotiable red line."

Unfortunately for Republicans, corporate tax increases also turn out to be phenomenally popular; for many years, Americans have believed that big companies haven't been paying their "fair share." Of course, just because something polls well doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea. So Republicans are trying to argue this narrative to the public: The 2017 GOP tax overhaul that lowered the corporate rate from 35 percent to 21 percent has been an extraordinary success, leading to gangbusters economic growth, hiring and strong government revenue; therefore, they claim, partly reversing this policy by bringing the corporate rate to 28 percent, as Biden proposes, would be an economic death sentence.

This argument has a few problems. Among them: Even one of the architects of then-President Donald Trump's tax cuts, former National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, acknowledged it's nonsense.

"On the corporate tax rate, I'm actually okay at 28 percent," he said in an interview last year when asked about then-candidate Biden's proposal. "The level we got to in our tax plan on the corporate side was actually a bit lower than I thought we needed to go." He said the "corporate community" would likely "be fine" with that level too, and that business groups told the Trump administration as much during private discussions in 2017. (The corporate sector's public posture differs now.)

There are some interesting echoes here of the 1980s. When President Ronald Reagan signed a massive tax cut into law in 1981, his own Office of Management and Budget director publicly expressed misgivings about its size and implications for the deficit. Over the next few years, in response to the ballooning deficits his staffers had correctly predicted, Reagan signed into law multiple major tax increases. That partial claw-back is a fact today's Republicans conveniently forget.

But the bigger problem for Republicans today is that the track record of the Trump tax cuts has been a bust. That's according to standards set by the law's own advocates.

Back in 2017, the law's boosters offered a very specific explanation for how the corporate tax cuts would provide "rocket fuel" to the U.S. economy. Reducing taxes on corporate profits would attract more capital, they argued, which would in turn increase business investment, which would lead to growth in economic activity, hiring and wages. Through additional economic growth, this entire law would "pay for itself."

The reality?

The law had no appreciable effect on business investment, as a 2019 International Monetary Fund analysis found. Growth in gross domestic product was also not terribly different in the post-tax-cut (and pre-covid) years than in the several years prior. Tax revenue was also much lower than had been forecast to be the case without the cuts, meaning that no, the law did not pay for itself.

It's true the job market was strong in the period after the tax cuts passed and before covid-19 broke out, and that unemployment was very low, but unemployment had already been falling for eight years before the Trump tax cuts. That existing trend merely continued.

And, again, the specific "capital deepening" mechanism by which the law was supposed to create an economic bonanza never happened. Those of us who had been skeptical of the rosy predictions Republicans made in 2017 pointed out that whatever might be holding back business investment, it didn't seem to be a lack of access to capital; at the time, companies were already sitting on mountains of cash they couldn't find productive investments for. The tax cuts seemed more likely, instead, to result in a windfall for shareholders. That forecast did materialize, in the form of a stock-buyback boom.

Given this track record, Republican warnings about the economic apocalypse that would ensue from a reasonable tax increase are not terribly convincing. But since tax cuts are the only thing Republicans still reliably stand for, it's hard to blame them for trying.

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Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

CATHERINE RAMPELL COLUMN

Advance for release Tuesday, April 13, 2021, and thereafter

(For Rampell clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Catherine Rampell

The most anti-refugee president in modern history may not be Donald Trump. Right now, it's looking like Joe Biden.

At least according to the numbers.

Halfway through fiscal 2021, the United States has admitted only 2,050 refugees, State Department data show. At the current pace, about 4,100 people would be resettled here this year. That would be the lowest number since the modern refugee resettlement program began in 1980; the previous record low came last year, under Trump alone, at 11,814. Amazingly, monthly admissions have slowed since Biden took office. To put these numbers in context: Over the previous four decades, refugee admissions averaged about 78,000 annually, or roughly 19 times the total we're on track for this year.

This is not, presumably, what most Americans thought they were getting when they elected Biden.

Biden has spoken warmly of immigrants in general and refugees in particular. He has argued that welcoming the "huddled masses" is an American tradition, humanitarian duty and diplomatic advantage. Shortly after taking office, he announced plans to rebuild the refugee resettlement program, which had been hobbled by years of successively lower refugee admissions ceilings set by Trump. Biden said this process would begin by quadrupling the record-low ceiling that Trump had set for fiscal 2021 (taking it from 15,000 to 62,500).

More significantly, Biden said he would remove discriminatory eligibility criteria that Trump added mere days before the 2020 election. These impossible-to-meet admission categories effectively blocked nearly all refugees from African and Muslim countries from qualifying for resettlement in the United States, whatever the overall ceiling might suggest. These criteria are the main reason admissions have slowed to a trickle.

Biden announced all this in early February. His State Department submitted a detailed report to Congress on the new ceiling and eligibility criteria days later. State Department officials began booking flights for refugees who had been waiting for years -- people who had been fully screened for national security and public health concerns and deemed ready to go.

Then, astoundingly, Biden blocked his own policy from taking effect.

Without explanation, Biden never signed the paperwork, called a "presidential determination," legally necessary to lift Trump's restrictions. So, roughly 715 desperate refugees whose travel arrangements were made by Biden's own State Department -- many of whom had given away their possessions and vacated their homes in anticipation of relocation -- had their tickets abruptly canceled.

At least one family in a Tanzanian refugee camp was booked on a flight for February and rescheduled for another flight in March, because Biden hadn't completed his bureaucratic task in time for their original itinerary, according to the International Rescue Committee, the nonprofit resettlement agency assigned to receive them in Idaho. Ultimately, their travel was canceled, a sign that even State Department officials hadn't anticipated Biden's repeated and unexplained paperwork delays. Many families had similar experiences during Trump's presidency, when they were also booked and subsequently unbooked for flights.

Which suggests how little has changed since Trump left office, despite Biden's warm-and-fuzzy rhetoric.

Asked repeatedly (by me and others) what accounts for Biden's delay, White House officials have struggled to answer. Sometimes they try to blame Trump, complaining that his administration left a system in "disrepair" that requires "rebuilding." No doubt, Trump wrought a lot of damage upon the immigration system, and more resources would be necessary to reach the much higher refugee admissions that Biden claims he wants for the next fiscal year (125,000); currently, there aren't enough people sufficiently far along in the refugee-screening pipeline to meet that goal.

But none of this explains why the few thousand already fully vetted and deemed "travel-ready" by the State Department as of early March have not been allowed in. The only thing preventing their entry is Biden -- who refuses to do the right thing and sign a simple document.

The only explanation I can fathom for what's going on is that the White House fears ordinary Americans will confuse the refugee resettlement system with the surge of migrants at the southern border. "Refugees" and "asylum seekers" might sound synonymous, but the groups are subject to different sets of laws, screening procedures and executive authorities. One key difference is that refugees apply from abroad and are screened for eligibility before they arrive; asylum seekers apply from within our borders or at a port of entry.

In other words, refugees are doing precisely what both Biden and Republicans urge those fleeing persecution and violence to do: staying abroad, and not crossing into the United States unlawfully; proving to U.S. and international officials that their lives are indeed in danger, and that they meet the legal requirements for resettlement; enduring extensive screening to prove they don't threaten national security or public health; and then patiently waiting their turn for admission, a process that usually takes years.

And how is Biden rewarding them? The same way Trump did: by slamming the door.

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Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

CATHERINE RAMPELL COLUMN

Advance for release Friday, April 9, 2021, and thereafter

(For Rampell clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Catherine Rampell

WASHINGTON - Republicans learned a valuable lesson this past week: There's more to capitalism than tax cuts.

Turns out successful capitalists also need to keep their customers happy.

For a long time, the Republican Party had what it believed was a tacit deal with corporate America. Companies donated enormous sums to GOP campaigns and aligned groups, and in exchange, Republicans delivered tax cuts: on corporate profits, capital gains, estates. Whatever other agenda items Republicans pursued - on immigration, civil rights or anything else - corporate America would generally keep its mouth shut. So long as the tax cuts kept flowing, the only "speech" that corporations engaged in came from their wallets, which in turn were fattened by those tax cuts.

An un-virtuous cycle, if you will.

But recently, something funny happened. Democrats, having achieved unified control of government, are threatening to reverse the major corporate tax cut Republicans passed in 2017. Yet corporate America is criticizing Republicans, and for something unrelated: legislation in Georgia, Texas and other states that threatens to strip Americans of their voting rights.

Republicans are furious that corporations appear so ungrateful.

"I found it completely discouraging to find a bunch of corporate CEOs getting in the middle of politics," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., whined Monday. He fumed on Tuesday that his "warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics." Then he hastened to add: "I'm not talking about political contributions."

McConnell wasn't the only politico suggesting that companies should butt out of politics (except when it comes to contributions, of course) if they wanted to continue reaping fiscal benefits. Georgia legislators were more explicit about what corporations need to do to keep the tax-cut gravy train rolling.

Last week, the Georgia House of Representatives voted to revoke a break on fuel taxes that benefits Atlanta-based Delta Airlines, which had criticized the state's recent voting law. House Speaker David Ralston, R, explained: "You don't feed a dog that bites your hand. You gotta keep that in mind sometimes." Apparently - shockingly! - this tax break had not been based on some abstract notion of public welfare or good governance or economy-boosting policy but, rather, a perceived quid pro quo. (Georgia's Senate adjourned before taking up the legislation.)

There are a couple of takeaways here.

One is that what had recently been an extremely anodyne stance for companies to embrace - that voting is good - is now, somehow, construed as worthy of political retaliation. This says more about how far out on a limb Republicans are, not corporations. Despite spin that they are promoting "election integrity," GOP legislators in dozens of states have introduced bills that include potent weapons for disenfranchising voters.

Georgia's law, for instance, allows political appointees to seize control of election planning and ballot counting from local officials whenever those political appointees see fit. Had this law been in place last year, it might have enabled the GOP to overturn the results of the presidential election, and to find those "11,780 votes" Donald Trump was seeking. Even Georgia's Republican lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, acknowledged the provision was "the fallout from the 10 weeks of misinformation that flew in from former president Donald Trump," rather than any attempt at genuinely improving election functioning.

Second, for the most part, these corporations aren't criticizing anti-voter bills out of the goodness of their hearts. They're doing so because speaking up is good for the bottom line. They've crunched the numbers and determined that promoting voting rights is more financially valuable than whatever they stand to gain from slightly lower tax rates.

Among those at risk of disenfranchisement, after all, are these companies' customers and employees. And it's not such a great business move to endorse attempts to take away your customers' and employees' civil rights; even staying neutral on the issue - as some companies tried to do before the Georgia law passed - can alienate consumers who are either direct victims of the law or allies of those victims. Similar dynamics emerged after Republicans pursued other divisive laws in recent years (such as North Carolina's "bathroom bill").

This is, in fact, how capitalism works: Customers get to ditch you if they're unhappy with your brand. Republican officials are now trying to show just how valuable their own side's purchasing power is by urging supporters to boycott companies that criticize voting restrictions. They've struggled so far; shortly after Trump asked followers to boycott Coca-Cola products, for instance, an adviser tweeted a photo showing Trump with what appeared to be a Diet Coke on his desk.

Hard to blame Republicans too much for having difficulty with the concept of voting with your feet, though. As their approach in Georgia shows, they're accustomed to getting to pick and choose which votes count.

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Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

About
Catherine Rampell is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post. She frequently covers economics, public policy, immigration and politics, with a special emphasis on data-driven journalism. She is also an economic and political commentator for CNN, a special correspondent for the PBS NewsHour and a contributor to Marketplace. Before joining The Post, she wrote about economics and theater for the New York Times. Rampell has received the Weidenbaum Center Award for Evidence-Based Journalism and is a Gerald Loeb Award finalist. She grew up in Florida and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton University.

Sign up to receive Catherine Rampell's latest columns in your inbox as soon as they're published.
Awards
  • Weidenbaum Center Award for Evidence-Based Journalism, 2010
  • Gerald Loeb Award, Finalist, 2011
  • Gerald Loeb Award, Finalist, 2012
  • Gerald Loeb Award, Finalist, 2018
  • Gerald Loeb Award, Finalist, 2019
  • Gerald Loeb Award, Finalist, 2020
Reviews
"Opinion editors encounter a regular problem in selecting syndicated material for their pages: several columnists writing about the same topic in the same week. Diversity of subject matter is important to readers, and I've found that when I need a different, interesting topic with a different voice, Catherine Rampell consistently delivers." -Glenn Cook, Las Vegas Review-Journal

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