President Trump and congressional Republicans are ramping up their push to pass tax reform. What, exactly, “reform” means is still an open question; as my colleague Perry Bacon Jr. has detailed, different Republican factions put a higher priority on different elements of a possible bill. There are divides, for instance, over how regressive any measure should be and how much emphasis to put on tax cuts versus deficit reduction.
With the policy details still in flux, let’s take a step back to consider a few broad facts on how the American public thinks about taxes. Consider this “The Politics of Taxes: 101.”
1. Tax reform is not a top priority for most Americans, which might make it less divisive than health care.
The various Republican health care bills that Congress considered were all unpopular. That was obviously problematic. But one of the big reasons GOP efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare became such a big problem for Republicans is that health care is important to Americans. During the health care debate earlier this year, Americans consistently listed health care among their top concerns. In a May Gallup poll, health care tied with “dissatisfaction with government/poor leadership” as the most important problem facing the country, at 18 percent.
Taxes are different. Just 2 percent of Americans rate it as the nation’s most important problem, according to Gallup. And while 53 percent of Republicans rated Obamacare repeal as an “extremely important” priority for Congress this year in a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health survey, only 34 percent of Republicans felt the same way about “reducing federal taxes on individuals and businesses.” Meanwhile, only 4 percent of the most active members of the “Resistance” movement against Trump rated the economy as their No. 1 voting issue, according to a nonscientific Lake Research Partners poll. In the same survey, 37 percent said health care was their top voting issue.
Of course, repealing Obamacare has been the top story for much of the year, but health care has consistently outranked taxes as a priority for Americans in a variety of poll questions for most of the past 15 or so years.
The point is that members of Congress are less likely to feel pressure from their constituents on tax reform than on health care. That doesn’t mean pressure won’t develop, particularly if the GOP plans are super unpopular (something that seems very possible at the moment). But all else being equal, taxes are less likely than health care to ignite a firestorm among the public.
2. Taxes are a top priority for business groups and GOP donors, which could skew the legislation in their favor.
An overhaul of the tax system is reportedly a huge priority for conservative interest groups, including the Koch network. The Kochs are investing more than $10 million to advocate for a tax bill, including ads on television to pressure members to vote for the legislation.
That potential disconnect — an absence of public pressure and attention vs. high engagement from GOP donors and business groups — could have big ramifications in terms of what legislation Congress pushes, and therefore what the political fallout of the tax effort ends up being. Republicans might be more responsive to wealthy donors and interest groups who put a high priority on taxes. The bill might therefore disproportionately benefit those groups, which would likely make it really unpopular.
3. Still, Republicans start off in a much better position on taxes than on health care.
Another major problem Republicans faced on health care is that Americans trusted Democrats more on the issue. In a June Gallup survey, for example, 55 percent of Americans said the Democratic Party would do a better job dealing with health care, compared with just 36 percent who said Republicans would. That meant that pretty much any health care package Republicans put forth was starting at a disadvantage and would have to overcome deep skepticism from the American public.
On taxes, Republicans are on a much more level playing field. The same Gallup poll found that 45 percent felt Democrats could deal better with taxes, while 43 percent said the Republicans could. When it came to the national debt — which might become a Democratic line of attack against the eventual GOP bill — 49 percent said Republicans could better deal with it to just 35 for the Democrats.
If Republican legislators can agree on a plan, the public is likely to be more willing to listen to the party’s pitch on taxes than on health care.
4. Well, except if that plan benefits mostly the rich. Reducing taxes on the wealthy is deeply unpopular.
Republicans haven’t yet released a fully formed tax plan, but Americans are already wary of the policies being floated. Just 28 percent of respondents in a September ABC News/Washington Post survey said they supported Trump’s tax plan given what they had read or heard about it. A plurality, 44 percent, were opposed.
That may seem odd given that, as I wrote above, the public isn’t automatically hostile to a GOP tax plan. But one of the clearest trends you can find in polling on taxes is that Americans don’t think the rich should pay less, and — so far at least — the public thinks that’s what Republicans are aiming for.
In the September ABC News/Washington Post poll, 51 percent of Americans said they thought that Trump’s current plan favored the wealthy over the middle class. Only 10 percent said it favored the middle class over the wealthy. The same poll found that just 33 percent of Americans wanted to reduce taxes on the wealthy, while 62 percent were opposed.
5. A tax cut for everyone would likely be popular — and the more tilted toward the middle class, the more popular.
This is basically the inverse of No. 4: Tax cuts for the wealthy are unpopular; tax cuts for the less well-off are very popular. The September ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 78 percent of Americans were in favor of tax cuts for lower- and middle-class people. In a September NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, 57 percent of Americans said a tax cut for small businesses would be healthy for the economy.
Short of a middle-class-focused tax cut, the public seems at least warm to the idea of a tax cut for everyone. In an October YouGov survey, 51 percent of Americans favored cutting taxes for all Americans, with only 29 percent opposed. Even when it came to businesses, only 48 percent opposed a tax cut in the September ABC News/Washington Post poll. This means, at least in theory, that Republicans could cut taxes for even the wealthiest of Americans and corporations, and it wouldn’t doom the bill in the public’s eyes as long as people thought it wasn’t just the wealthy who were benefiting.
6. Raising the budget deficit is unpopular, though deficit reduction isn’t a top priority.
This is one of the central tensions that congressional Republicans are wrestling with: how to cut taxes without exploding the deficit. There’s polling that suggests the GOP should pay attention to the deficit. According to the aforementioned October YouGov poll, only 48 percent of Trump’s own voters would favor a tax cut if it increased the deficit. Among voters at large, it’s just 27 percent. A plurality of voters, 43 percent, were opposed to a deficit-increasing tax cut. That makes a deficit-raising tax package only a little more popular than Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare.
But tax cuts are probably a higher priority for voters than deficit reduction. In the October YouGov survey, only 40 percent of Americans said the budget deficit was a very important issue for them. A significantly higher number — 53 percent — said taxes were very important to them. Both of those numbers are low compared with health care (71 percent), but the deficit number is really low.
This puts Republicans in a risky position: They could craft a tax bill that simply cuts rates and increases the deficit, betting that Americans will be more enamored with the former than they are displeased with the latter. The polling suggests that bet might pay off. But it’s not guaranteed and would likely depend on the details — how big are the cuts and who do they benefit? How much is the deficit increased?
The public might be more likely to go along with a deficit-increasing bill if it’s focused on the middle class. They might not kick up a fuss if the bill mostly benefits the wealthy but is deficit-neutral. If Republicans push a plan that disproportionately cuts taxes for the rich while also increasing the deficit — and there are hints that that’s where they’re heading — well … all bets are off.