Update 172 Recess Recap Trump’s Economic Policy Scorecard
When Congress returns at the end of the month, it confronts an expiring federal budget and the threat of a government shutdown on April 28, right before Trump’s 100th day in office. At that point, the administration may look legislatively stillborn.
A recap of economic policy developments in the first quarter of 2017 and a look at what awaits us after recess.
One of the subtlest but surprising developments of the year to date is the sense that Wall Street itself (the financial industry) is not as warm to the idea of repealing the law as Trump is. Several major firms and the Wall Street Journal — yes, even its masthead editorial page — have signaled caution when it comes to the president’s actions on Dodd Frank. More and more investors believe that the administration is unlikely to deliver any significant jolt to the economy.
As Trump vowed again this week to “do a number” on Dodd-Frank, it’s expected that the SEC, under Jay Clayton who will likely be confirmed, will soften enforcement and rules that the 2010 law put in place. That is not to say that rolling back Obama-era regulations will be easy for the SEC. Per the Journal: “The SEC doesn’t have the authority to revoke Dodd-Frank, which is an act of Congress.”
Given that the vast majority of rules and regulations from the Dodd-Frank Act have already been implemented, the best that the SEC can do is amend them or grant exemptions on a case by case basis. If legal objections were motioned as a result of the SEC’s actions, it would slow down the already drawn-out process.
It seems that the already difficult tax overhaul process just got a lot more complicated for Trump. The GOP in Congress are having trouble agreeing on a bill that Democrats won’t filibuster. This all started when two senior economic officials who served in the Obama administration, David Kamin and Brad Tester, published an article that found that the much talked about Border Adjustment Tax will not produce the kind of revenue the President has suggested. If their report is confirmed by, say, the CBO, then it would throw the whole tax agenda off because they would not be able to produce a bill that wouldn’t add to the debt.
The Trump administration is working hard to ensure a legislative success before the year is up. There are a lot of opportunities and a lot of road blocks (think Blue Dog Democrats and the Freedom Caucus). Recently, the President’s legislative director met with moderate House Democrats to propose working with them on the tax reform plan. One of the Democratic lawmakers who attended the meeting said that the legislative director declared the border adjustment tax dead on arrival. If that is the case, then Donald Trump’s protectionist campaign promises will be broken, a prospective trillion dollars in revenue will be lost, and tax reform, lacking a pay-for, will limp forward, or not.
There have been rumors this week that the White House is considering a carbon tax and a value added tax to make up for the loss of revenue that will be induced by the massive tax cuts Republicans are aiming for, both on the income and corporate side. If the carbon tax is in the bill, the Freedom Caucus had have reason to vote against it.
The White House has flip-flopped on the VAT and carbon tax, saying that it was considering them at first and soon after disavowed them completely. Given the collective lack of experience this administration has, their negotiation efforts are very transparent and their tactics are easy to dodge so far.
This flip-flop shows that the Freedom Caucus should have reason to be cautious of their trust in the House leadership to put forth a plan with their inputs taken into account. This is precisely why the plan is showing signs of ripping apart at the seams. This and the BAT may get debated extensively over the next few months. Don’t be deceived: they are dead letters in Congress.
For some reason, the administration decided to pick tax reform as its next big ticket item after the health care debacle, opting for the more difficult and partisan route. The president may once have had a shot at working with Democrats who have been asking for infrastructure investment for a long time, but it seems that Trump is ditching that train for now.
The president’s infrastructure plan might, accordingly, also be too ambitions. With a goal of a trillion dollars, Trump aims to pass large tax subsidies to investors willing to pour money into infrastructure investment. There are many reasons this plan is risky, one of which is that large firms will be getting nothing short of massive government handouts for investments they are probably going to make anyway.
Last year, Congressman Delaney came up with a plan that could give the president a pass around Democratic obstruction. His proposed infrastructure bill combines infrastructure investments, which Democrats have been eying for quite some time, and international tax reform, an issue that Republicans have been keen to tackle. And here’s the catch: it has strong bipartisan support with 40 Democrat and 40 Republican cosponsors.
By going with tax reform first and seeking more money than Obama’s stimulus package, this administration’s legislative agenda and self imposed August deadline suggests remarkable legislative incompetence.
Despite being able to check off submitting a statutorily required budget to Congress from his to-do list, Trump can hardly consider this any sort of accomplishment at this point. As it was not even dead on arrival — Congress will not consider or even hold hearings on it — and grossly increased the deficit, there is nothing to see here as an accomplishment.
What the GOP Might Do
The biggest obstacle to a sweeping tax reform is the Democrats in the Senate, who could easily filibuster a bill if it adds to the national debt. The reason for that is that tax legislation that adds to the debt cannot be passed by a simple majority vote as per the reconciliation process that passed the budget resolution earlier this year. That said, there are still ways around the filibuster with a model similar to the Bush Tax Cuts which passed in 2001.
Per the Washington Post: “Republicans could avoid Democrats in the Senate altogether by putting forward a plan that would expire after 10 years, the approach they adopted when they reduced taxes under President George W. Bush. They could also rely on a different set of estimates than those produced by the JCT if that agency’s analysis is unfavorable to their plan.”
The budget resolution passed earlier this year through a reconciliation process could give the GOPu some leverage in the legislature. While it may miss on major reforms, the administration could push through several smaller tax reforms that could pave the way for the president’s infrastructure plan. If Trump were serious about infrastructure, Republicans could look to Congressman Delaney’s plan and set a less ambitious goal than $1 trillion.
In regard to repealing Dodd-Frank, Republicans are having a much harder time than they had anticipated. As noted, the intricate law has recently picked up an unlikely supporter base: Wall Street itself. The industries main newspaper has cautioned against repealing the law, and several key players have joined the Dodd-Frank chorus. That won’t stop Republicans, however, from at least seeking to chip away at some parts of the law.
This is just the beginning of what is going to be a drawn out process, with several wins and many losses. The question is can the president pull a rabbit out of a hat and pass tax reform or will this administration be legislatively stillborn come August recess? Money can buy many things and every administration has a learning curve but it is already beginning run out of the one thing it keeps trying to buy: time.