In our times, Republican majorities aren’t worth the paper voters cast their ballots on. That’s the lesson out of Kansas this week, and it can easily happen in D.C.
In one swift blow, the signature achievement of a conservative administration was undone by liberal Republican lawmakers who valued increased government spending over small government and individual liberty and who wanted to distance themselves from an unpopular chief executive.
On Tuesday, lawmakers in Kansas passed a $1.2 billion tax increase that would raise income taxes and end a tax exemption on small businesses, affecting 330,000 farmers and business owners. The tax increase was a rebuke of Governor Sam Brownback’s 2012 tax cuts, which lowered income taxes and reduced some business taxes to zero in a successful effort to spur business growth.
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, R, promised to veto the legislation, and he followed through on that promise. Tuesday evening, his veto was overridden.
"Senate Bill 30 is a $1.2 billion tax hike, making it the largest in state history,” Brownback warned the legislature the night before the vote. “This is bad for Kansas and bad for the many Kansans who would have more of their hard-earned money taken from them.”’
Brownback’s prognostications were not enough. Kansas faces a $900 million budget deficit, and the local media in Kansas has been on a crusade to blame the state’s budget problems on Brownback’s tax cuts – rather than the recalcitrant legislature’s refusal to cut spending and the Kansas Supreme Court’s mandates for increased spending. A sagging local economy is the result of external commodity markets beyond the government’s control. The governor’s approval rating is the worst in the country, and his political capital has been all but extinguished, as he is term-limited and rumors circulate that he will leave office for a federal position.
Legislatures respond to political incentives. The state Senate and House voted 27-13 and 88-31, respectively, to override Brownback’s veto.
"I look at this as bittersweet. I don’t like the bill. I hate the bill. But we have to move forward as a state," said Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita.
“We have to move forward.” There, in a nutshell, is the mentality of a squish. “It doesn’t matter if the policy is harmful; the government needs to appear to do something.” “Doing something” always results in bigger government – in Kansas, that means a $1.2 billion tax increase.
Washington, D.C., has a similarly dismal political environment spurred by an unpopular chief executive. President Trump has accurately described the alleged Russia-collusion controversy surrounding his administration as a “cloud” that is emboldening Democrats to obstruct his agenda. Republicans, meanwhile, are looking for areas to compromise the conservative aspects of Trump’s agenda.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has made “revenue neutral” tax reform a condition of any tax bill package to come up for a vote in the Senate. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, has previously said President Trump may sign on to calls for revenue-neutral tax reform. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has floated the creation of a new border-adjustment tax to meet that condition.
“As far as I’m concerned, virtually any potential [offset] for reduced tax rates should be on the table, and that includes the so-called border-adjustment tax,” Hatch said Wednesday.
Raising taxes in any form would be a retreat from President Trump’s campaign agenda. But Republicans have already retreated from the Trump agenda in budget negotiations and on repealing Obamacare.
The lesson to be learned from Kansas is these retreats and betrayals will become worse if the president continues to hemorrhage his approval rating and if he lets distractions like the Russia controversy take the administration off-message. President Trump needs to reset on the issues that helped him win the presidency. He should come out strong, with a consistent message on terror, on Obamacare, on taxes. He should use his bully pulpit to put the legislature on the hot seat, demanding that they get to work to make his agenda become law.
Legislative accomplishment and good governance are the only things that can save Trump’s approval rating. The trains need to run on time for the political environment to improve. Failing this, Republicans will turn on the president as they turned on Gov. Brownback, and the American people will suffer under bad policy.