A leading GOP senator faced a backlash this week after calling for all Americans to start paying federal income taxes, leading to criticism from both the White House and leading conservative policy experts.
He received so much blowback to the ambiguity of his proposal within less than 24 hours that he was forced to offer two caveats, insisting the new tax wouldn’t apply to seniors or those who are not, as he described them, “able bodied.”
Roughly 50 percent of Americans on the bottom half of the income distribution do not pay federal income taxes because they do not earn enough to have income tax liability and because many receive tax credits. Millions of these Americans do pay federal and state government taxes in the form of payroll taxes, sales taxes and other levies.
“All Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game, even if a small amount,” Scott’s proposal states. “Currently over half of Americans pay no income tax.”
Scott’s pitch comes at an uncertain moment for conservative policymaking as Republicans debate to what extent they need a proactive agenda to run on in the 2022 midterm elections. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been adamant that the Senate GOP will not release a platform ahead of the election, saying the party only needs to reveal its plans for running Congress “when we take it back.”
That position has proved unpopular with some Republicans who believe the party should put forward a set of policy priorities. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), for instance, is putting together a comprehensive legislative package for House Republicans. Scott’s 11-point proposal includes many other long-standing conservative projects, such as eliminating the Education Department, building President Donald Trump’s border wall and declaring that there are only two genders.
“I’ll warn you,” Scott wrote in the introduction to his plan. “This plan is not for the faint of heart.”
He predicted the plan would face blowback, and he was right. Some experts pointed out that Scott’s push for a nominal federal income tax runs counter to the GOP attempt to tie higher taxes to the Democratic Party. Others pointed out that Trump found political success by rejecting cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other programs popular with the poor and middle class. By contrast, Scott’s rhetoric harks back to the widely criticized comments by Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign arguing that the “47 percent” of Americans who pay no income taxes would automatically support the Democratic Party.
“It’s dramatically off-message for where Republicans are going on taxes — they shouldn’t be talking about raising taxes on anybody,” said Brian Riedl, a former aide to Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a center-right think tank. “The GOP has moved away from the 2010 ‘makers and takers’ framework — so it’s a little outdated.”
Samuel Hammond, a policy expert at the Niskanen Center, another center-right think tank, also pointed out that the GOP tax cut of 2017 doubled the standard tax deduction — and therefore may have increased the number of Americans paying no federal income taxes. Roughly 100 million Americans paid no income tax in 2021, according to the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank. That number probably will go down in 2022 as pandemic-era expansions of government programs expire.
Scott said seniors would be exempted from the measure, but it was unclear how the nominal tax would then still apply to all Americans. The proposal also appears to raise taxes on the working class and the poor, who make up the majority of Americans not paying income taxes.
“Wasn’t it supposed to be a big success of the Paul Ryan tax plan that they increased the standard deduction quite a bit?” Hammond said.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Twitter: “Senate Republicans just released an economic plan that doesn’t include a single proposal to lower prices for the middle class. Instead he wants to raise taxes on half of Americans — including on seniors and working families.”
Some Republicans defended the pitch by the senator from Florida. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich praised Scott for attempting to craft a GOP policy platform ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, while not endorsing all of the platform’s specific ideas.
“He’s at least raising important questions over, ‘Should every American have some stake in the country?'" Gingrich said. “Rick would probably say he started the dance but he doesn’t think this is the final symphony. … He and Kevin McCarthy are moving in the right direction that we have to have something positive — both to communicate to the voters and get our own candidates to think about governing next year.”
Frank Luntz, a former GOP pollster, said in an email that he believes the proposal would be popular.
“Scott is clearly appealing to the center of the political and social spectrum,” Luntz said. “Most Americans do believe everyone should pay at least some taxes, but no one wants to pay more than their fair share.”
In a statement, Scott said: “What my plan tackles is the willing-to-work shortage caused by Joe Biden and the Democrats who decided to pay people more not to work. It talks about able-bodied people who are taking a paycheck rather than working, not those who already pay into the system. We need to get Americans back to work. Making sure every American has skin in the game is a way to do it and the American people agree.”
Asked by Fox News Tuesday night about Democrats’ criticisms that his proposal would raise taxes, Scott said, “Of course not,” though his proposal does appear to raise taxes.
Scott’s plan includes a number of other highly aggressive conservative ideas that would radically alter the federal government and provide fodder for Democratic attacks.
Chief among them is his plan to cut the budget of the Internal Revenue Service by as much as 50 percent, a provision that would make enforcing the nation’s tax laws significantly more difficult. His plan also includes a new “12-year” limit on the careers of all members of Congress and federal workers, excepting national security personnel, which would force dozens of current GOP lawmakers out of their seats. Scott’s proposal also calls for abolishing increases to the federal debt ceiling absent a declaration of war, although Republicans under Trump repeatedly raised the nation’s debt limit to finance peacetime expansions in government spending.
Perhaps the most dramatic change in Scott’s plan is his pitch for “all” federal legislation to expire after only five years, which if ever enacted would enormously complicate legislating.
Even some allies of Scott said his timing could hurt Republicans.
“It has sort of raised a lot of people’s eyebrows. … There’s been a buzz about: Is this the smart thing to say right now, given that we have Democrats on the run?” said Stephen Moore, who served as an economic policy adviser to Trump, of Scott’s income tax proposal. “I’ve said for 30 years everybody should pay some income tax, if you’re going to vote and have government benefits. But is it the smartest time to be saying that right now? No.”
Indeed, Democrats were quick to seize on Scott’s plan. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee announced Wednesday morning that it is launching a five-figure radio ad campaign focused on highlighting tax hikes for millions of Americans. Congressional Democrats argued Scott’s comments reflect the GOP’s belief that much of the United States does not work hard enough.
“Trump’s populist rhetoric temporarily obscured what is central to Republican orthodoxy: that half of Americans are takers and moochers,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Scott attempted to mollify some of the criticism on Wednesday, appearing to argue that his plan would only apply to “able-bodied” workers even though his initial plan stated that “all Americans” should be subject to the measure.
“The change we need to make is to require those who are able-bodied but won’t work to pay a small amount so that we’re all in this together,” Scott said on Twitter.
But many conservative tax experts were quick to point out that clarification does little to clear up the confusion about how Scott’s plan could work in practice.
In 2019, the bottom 40 percent of taxpayers received roughly $119 billion more through tax credits than they paid in income taxes, according to Riedl. Closing that gap probably would mean ending or dramatically curbing major programs aimed at helping low-income workers. Scott has not said, for instance, whether he would end the child tax credit and earned income tax credit traditionally supported by Republican lawmakers.
Most Americans who are working already face a tax liability, said Kyle Pomerleau, a tax expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank. The only way to ensure retirees and those who are not working pay taxes would either be to tax government benefits, such as Medicare; enact a federal consumption tax to encompass people who are not working; or simply require the unemployed to pay a fee, according to Pomerleau. Scott has not explained which of those options he might support.
Michael Strain, an economic policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, another center-right think tank, said he agreed with Scott’s “underlying motivation” of ensuring that everyone in the country contributes to the broader society.
“But I don’t think that means everyone needs to contribute to the individual income tax system,” Strain said. “Raising kids is a contribution; working is a contribution; being a member of your community is a contribution. Yes, let’s have a stronger norm that everyone is a contributing member of our society — but I don’t know why that means everyone needs to contribute through a nominal income tax.”