What would you say is the most important difference between Democrats and Republicans? If I asked ten different people that question, it’s quite possible I would get ten different answers. Maybe we could narrow it down by putting it this way: What, since the Reagan era, has been the most broadly consequential difference between Democrats and Republicans? Personally, I’m going with tax policy for its impact on exacerbating income inequality, corrupting American democracy, and hobbling government’s ability to do anything constructive.
The importance of tax policy was brought home to me back in the early 2000s when I was still teaching at Minnesota State Moorhead. I spent about a decade on the faculty union’s Government Relations Committee. We had an excellent team lobbying the state on behalf of public higher education, and legislators from both sides of the aisle professed their support. But that did not prevent the state from repeatedly whittling away at our allocation. The economy had its ups and downs during those years, but the pattern we faced was that when the economy was down, the legislature would cut our budget, and when the economy was up, they would cut taxes. As a result of dwindling state support, the cost of a college education fell increasingly on the students and their indebtedness soared.
The difference is even more pronounced at the federal level. The most significant legislative accomplishment of the Trump/McConnell reign (not counting judicial appointments) was the massive tax cut they enacted in 2017, the benefits of which went overwhelmingly to corporations and the wealthy. Now, the Biden administration has ambitious plans to build up America’s infrastructure and help out American families. It’s a costly agenda, and they propose paying for it by rescinding just some of those cuts and restoring a more progressive tax system. When Republicans complain that the plan is too costly, what they really mean is that they will never vote for any spending plan that involves a tax increase.
Minnesotans would gain a great deal from passage of Biden’s American Jobs Plan, for example. The state needs $7.5 billion over the next 20 years to upgrade drinking water infrastructure and ensure clean, safe drinking water for all, and the plan includes an allocation for that purpose. The plan also addresses the issue of affordable housing, and that could help the 282,000 Minnesotans who spend more than 30% of their income on rent. There are already almost 62,000 Minnesotans employed in clean energy, and the American Jobs Plan would create even more of those good paying union jobs. However, those are precisely the kinds of progressive provisions most likely to be sacrificed if the American Jobs Plan has any chance of gaining enough Republican support to survive a filibuster.
Once upon a time, legislators believed their most important task was to “bring home the bacon” for their districts. It wasn’t always a pretty process, but it did give infrastructure spending broad support. Now it seems that Republican legislators believe their main job is shielding their wealthy benefactors from having to pay taxes.