Congressional Republicans can reasonably be accused of prioritizing issues about which middle-class voters care little. The president can reasonably be said to have his priorities perfectly in order, with counterproductive proposals that won’t achieve them.
The millions who knocked on doors in 2014, and the few who spent millions backing them, got what they were after: Republican control of both houses of Congress. So how are the Republicans in Congress doing? Not too well, according to NBC/Wall Street Journal polling. Only 23 percent of those polled approve of the job they are doing, and the GOP’s rating has fallen significantly since the elections. Poor priorities might be one reason.
As a first step on the road to the White House, Republicans agreed in the lame duck session to an omnibus bill that had buried in it a modification of the Dodd-Frank law, the bête noire of Wall Street. The provision allowed banks that are still too-big-to-fail to take more risks, secure in the knowledge that if they once again manage themselves to the brink of failure the good old taxpayer will stump up bailout funds. It was a bipartisan effort, with Elizabeth Warren and a few objectors the only ones trying to prevent this silliness, and it’s a long way to 2016, so perhaps Main Street voters who did notice that they were once again being readied to be plucked in an emergency will forget.
Republicans then decided, when the new Congress convened, that the most important thing they could do for a middle class that has barely shared in the tepid recovery would be to pass a bill authorizing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to bring more crude oil (some already arrives by train, some by other pipelines) to the United States. Nothing to do with any shortage of oil here: We are already hip deep in the stuff, the industry hoping that Congress will find a way to allow its export. Nothing to do with national security or that will o’ the wisp, energy independence: That oil will find its way onto international markets whether it comes here or not, further diluting the power of the oil cartel. Nothing to do with a major increase in jobs: Once built, the line can be operated with relatively few twists and turns of some dials and a handful of maintenance men who already have no problem finding work. And certainly nothing to do with the middle classes who are hoping Republicans will find something to do for them. Private sector companies, fracking on private lands, have already given them the gift of cheaper gasoline.
Ah, but the middle classes are interested in tax reform, aren’t they? Yes—and Republicans are focused on lowering the corporate tax rate. There will be offsetting business loophole closures, but of the arcane sort that few voters will understand. So Republicans will go to the voters in 2016 as the party that lowered corporate taxes? Why not use the money saved by closing loopholes to cut taxes on low- and middle-income earners? Because, says the GOP leadership, cutting corporate taxes will give corporations more money to invest and create jobs. But these corporations already have $2 trillion in cash that they don’t know what to do with, and some already have effective tax rates close to zero. Guess what most voters would say when asked whether they would like their taxes cut, or prefer to wait for the wonderful effect on their lives of lower corporate taxes. Ask most economists which approach, given the present condition of the economy, is more likely to stimulate growth, and they will say increasing incomes of cash-poor families is likely to do more than increasing the incomes of corporations already awash with cash.
If that’s not enough to burnish their friend-of-the-middle-class credentials, the Republican leadership plans to give Obama fast-track authority to negotiate trade agreements with Pacific rim countries and with the EU. Business interests dearly want these deals done so as to ease the movement of their goods and services between countries. Some of those countries will continue to bar or minimize, directly or indirectly, the three A’s in which America has a competitive advantage—agricultural products (unsafe genetic modification), audiovisual products (destructive of French culture), and airplanes (too competitive with made-in-Europe planes). Others will insist that their state-owned enterprises buy only domestic-made software. Not for Republicans Adam Smith’s interdiction: “Revenge . . . naturally dictates retaliation . . . when some foreign nation restrains . . . importation of some of our manufactures.”
The good news is that it is a long way from here to the polling booths in November 2016. There is still time to dare the president to veto