While rank-and-file House Republicans know little about the sprawling bill tax writers have been drafting behind closed doors — a measure they could be asked to vote on in just two weeks — few are ready to complain publicly about the rushed process.
As GOP leaders hit pause, pushing the legislation’s unveiling back a day to Thursday, several members interviewed Wednesday said they understood why tax writers were keeping provisions of the long-awaited bill secret. And while they were eager to see the text, they said if they got it this week, they could likely analyze it in time for a floor vote before Thanksgiving.
Republicans have said repeatedly that the tax overhaul effort would be different from their failed attempt to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law.
They said they’ve learned the importance of cooperation among the House, Senate and White House. But President Donald Trump is tweeting ideas contrary to those that tax writers had been pursuing, and the House and Senate are taking different approaches to key issues, like timing of a corporate rate cut and whether to fully repeal the estate tax.
They said they’ve learned lessons about setting artificial deadlines. But they insist the measure should pass the House by Thanksgiving and get to Trump’s desk by the end of the year.
They said they’ve learned to gather member input throughout the drafting process. But members, at times, still seem befuddled by decisions that are being made, like a plan to eliminate the state and local income tax deduction despite several members from New York and New Jersey making clear that keeping that break is a priority.
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Still, members insist the urgency to get the tax bill done is different from the deadline they set on health care.
“The artificial deadline on health care was the anniversary of Obamacare,” New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur said. “I always thought that was a mistake. That was truly artificial. This is a need to get tax reform done this calendar year … and that matters. If we want to see economic growth in the first, second quarter of next year, we really do have to get it done this year.”
The deadlines being set are necessary to get a detailed bill out the door, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said.
“The time is now to quit talking about principles and start talking about legislative text. And so I applaud any effort to do that,” the North Carolina Republican said.
While Meadows added the caveat that “anything that gets done in a cloak of secrecy is certainly not what an open and deliberative body should be doing,” most members defended the secrecy, saying it’s needed to keep special interests at bay until the bill is finalized.
With the years the Ways and Means Committee has spent working toward a tax overhaul, members also said it’s no surprise tax writers have been driving the decision-making, since they understand the issues best.
But that will inevitably create problems as other members who are less familiar with the issues get looped in — especially if the explanations they’re getting about the impacts of specific provisions are coming from K Street lobbyists and special interest groups.
“The Ways and Means Committee is very familiar with what they’re trying to do and understanding specific proposals and impacts,” Rep. Lee Zeldin said. “We just now reached that next point where you’re hearing from non-Ways and Means Committee members as you get closer to a vote on the House floor. And as you branch out from there, you start getting more perspectives.”
As a New York Republican, Zeldin has been offering tax writers his perspective that they should keep the state and local tax deduction. He’s concerned a proposal they’ve settled on to keep the deduction only for property taxes but not for income or sales taxes will have negative consequences for his state.
“If there’s a creative way to address this issue for my home district and my home state, I’d be happy to listen to it,” he said. “But I haven’t yet been presented with an idea of what would adequately make up for removing the income tax deduction.”
MacArthur and fellow New Jersey Rep. Leonard Lance are also concerned the proposal on the table doesn’t go far enough to protect their constituents from a tax hike.
While most members avoided blasting the tax-writing process, some foreshadowed the likelihood that complaints will come as it continues to unfold.
“We started differently on tax reform than we did on health care, but I hope that we don’t end up back on the same tracks that led us to the debacle with health care,” Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker of North Carolina said.
“I think we are in a place now where the urgency of being able to see the text … is very important to members across the board, whether they’re coming from the moderate states or the conservative states,” he said.
Rep. Phil Roe said some members outside the Ways and Means Committee have made it clear they need time to look at it.
“That’s enough time, if we can get it tomorrow,” the Tennessee Republican said Wednesday.
However, the bill is expected to change before and during the Ways and Means markup, leaving lawmakers with less time to consider a final version.
“I don’t have any complaints yet,” Freedom Caucus member Raúl R. Labrador said. But his wish list for the process to come suggests he may ultimately be disappointed.
“I want to see the bill, and we should have enough time to digest the bill,” the Idaho Republican said. “There should be good hearings, hopefully an opportunity to improve the bill in committee if any changes need to be made.”
At the end of the day, the decision lawmakers will face is whether to accept a rushed bill for a legislative win they acknowledge they desperately need or take the time to ensure they enact good policy that will benefit their constituents.
“It took two years in 1985 and 1986,” Lance said, referring to the last big rewrite of the tax code. “And I think this may take longer than anybody hopes just given the nature of the difficulty of the challenge.”
Ryan McCrimmon contributed to this report.