In the midst of the ongoing drama of the presidential campaign, it is easy to forget that there already are people who have been sworn in as elected officeholders, and that those people are doing their jobs almost completely without public scrutiny. Because the House of Representatives has been rigged to have a nearly permanent Republican majority, the House has essentially become like an incurable rash: annoying and sometimes even dangerous, but not worth thinking about very often. Even without the presidential primaries to distract us, focusing on the House might not seem like a high priority.
In fact, unless Paul Ryan agrees to leave the Speaker's chair to run for president after an open Republican convention this summer, the chances are that we will not hear about the House again for the rest of the year. Even before Ryan oh-so-reluctantly took the gavel from John Boehner, however, the regular activity of the House had become more than a bit of a farce. Most of the activity seemed to involve refusing to pass budgetary measures while repeatedly voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
To be clear, I certainly do understand that there are good reasons for politicians to propose bills that do not currently stand a chance of passing. Bernie Sanders's entire presidential campaign is predicated on the idea that we should be trying to advance proposals that are almost surely impossible to pass under current circumstances, and he has similarly sponsored bills in the Senate that were dead in the water. Similarly, Elizabeth Warren's "Tax Filing Simplification Act of 2016," which I endorsed recently, has no chance of going anywhere, especially given the anti-tax and anti-IRS fever that has gripped the Republican Party for the last generation or so.
Of course, Sanders and Warren are in the minority. If minority party members were not allowed to propose long-shot policy suggestions, their job would boil down to voting against whatever the majority proposes. In the extreme, once it was clear which party had the majority, the other party would not even need to show up at all. (Committee hearings can be a different matter, of course.) Being an effective minority party, however, involves not only looking for compromises with the majority, but also being politically aggressive by highlighting one's priorities in contrast to the majority party's agenda.
I suppose that one could say that the House Republicans (as well as Senators like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee) still think of themselves as the minority party, because they see so much impurity among their ranks. Leading government shutdowns is one way to respond to that sense of grievance, but that did not work out very well.
And in any event, we should at least be able to evaluate the certain-never-to-become-law proposals from the standpoint of whether they are coherent on their own terms. For example, I have argued that Warren's tax filing act is good policy, but even if one were to disagree with that assessment, her bill describes something specific that would change how the tax system works, which allows legal and policy analysts to assess the likely impact of that proposed law.
By contrast, the 60-plus votes to repeal the ACA are essentially a temper tantrum that has been going on for more than five years. The rap on the Republicans, after all this time, is that they still have not said how they want the health care system to work. They are not even willing to simply say, "Let's go back to where we were before," because they actually support the more popular aspects of the ACA (young adults on their parents' plans, no termination of coverage for pre-existing conditions, and so on).
Even the never-ending series of ACA repeal votes, however, is better than Republicans' nonsensical approach to tax policy. Consider "HR 27 — Tax Code Termination Act," sponsored by Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) (with dozens of Republican co-sponsors) and carrying the official title:"A bill to terminate the Internal Revenue Code of 1986." It is a very short bill, which readers can access here. What does it say? Just what its title suggests: terminate the Internal Revenue Code (with exceptions for taxes paid mostly by working people, especially FICA payroll taxes), effective January 1, 2020.
Then what? As I said, it is a very short bill, but Section 3 of the bill offers this helpful list:
The Congress hereby declares that any new Federal tax system should be a simple and fair system that—Thank goodness for that! What about puppies and kittens for everyone?
(1) applies a low rate to all Americans;
(2) provides tax relief for working Americans;
(3) protects the rights of taxpayers and reduces tax collection abuses;
(4) eliminates the bias against savings and investment;
(5) promotes economic growth and job creation; and
(6) does not penalize marriage or families.
The most that can be said, I suppose, is that the bill is designed to be a time bomb, putting a date certain on the time when Congress must pass a real bill that would actually achieve all of those wonderful things. Without a drop-dead date, after all, it is all to easy to procrastinate, right?
But given Republican-led Congresses' recent history with deadlines, that is hard to take seriously. This is the group, after all, that created the so-called Super Committee in 2011 to force a new budget deal, with a built-in disciplinary mechanism called "the sequester," which would create deep automatic cuts to both military and domestic discretionary spending if the Super Committee failed.
What happened? The Super Committee failed, but these same Republicans ultimately decided that they would rather allow the supposedly unthinkable cuts to go into effect -- with, of course, subsequent efforts to undo the military-related sequestration cuts -- rather than actually respond to the disciplinary device as planned.
It is quite easy to imagine the same thing happening with the Tax Code Termination Act. Rather than proceed in good faith in trying to craft a new tax system, the looming implosion of the tax system would simply become a bargaining chip for the most extreme demands that the Republicans could imagine. A caucus that is willing to play debt-ceiling roulette over and over again, after all, has certainly shown its ability to court absolute economic disaster in the pursuit of their extreme policy agenda.
Such anti-tax pandering, moreover, is not a sideline of the current Republican majority in Congress. It is their obsession. The House recently advanced bills that are clearly aimed at stoking anti-tax sentiment among the Republican base. (Note, unlike Goodlatte's nonsensical bill, which merely sits on the docket, these bills are currently being acted upon by Republicans in the House.) H.R. 4890 would end bonus payments for IRS employees until a new customer service strategy gets implemented, which amounts to punishing the current employees of the IRS for the supposed sins of their leaders and predecessors. H.R. 1206 would "prohibit the hiring of additional Internal Revenue Service employees until the Secretary of the Treasury certifies that no employee of the Internal Revenue Service has a seriously delinquent tax debt." That will help improve customer service at the IRS! (Obviously, being delinquent on tax debt is a serious matter, but it is absurd to tie that issue to the IRS's ability to hire new workers.)
Is this merely a maneuver by back-benchers to show that they are as anti-tax as their supporters back home want them to be? Speaker Ryan apparently does not think so: "We know that the IRS cannot be trusted to police itself. That has been proven. Each time we uncover more problems, the IRS comes up with more excuses." You know, like explaining reduced customer service by pointing to Republican-led budget cuts that make it impossible to staff taxpayer help lines -- cuts that even Ryan's staff accidentally conceded made the IRS's job impossible.. Excuses like that.
Moreover, if Ryan's claim that "the IRS cannot be trusted to police itself" has supposedly "been proven" by the IRS non-scandal scandal, then he is wrong even on his own terms. The initial inspector general's report that started this whole Republican talking point, after all, showed that the IRS had in fact policed itself exactly as one should hope it would. Higher-level IRS managers discovered that low-level employees were doing something wrong, and they put a stop to it. They did not make excuses, and they did not defend the employees' misguided (but apparently well-motivated) decisions. None of that matters to Ryan, of course, because even the top Republican in the House thinks that it is more important to score political points off the IRS than to deal with real problems.
The people's representatives are at work.