Political Decline

The betting markets now say that the most likely Republican nominee for president is a man who mocks women, insults Latinos, endorses war crimes like torture, denounces party icons and favors barring people from the United States based on their religion. ... It’s Donald Trump, of course. ... So today the leading candidate for president in the party of Lincoln is an ill-informed, inexperienced, bigoted, sexist xenophobe.
- Nicholas Kristof, The G.O.P. Created Donald Trump, NYT, Feb. 11, 2016

The men have tried to avoid the mistakes that plagued the collapsed effort to repeal and replace the health care law, placing a premium on communicating with key members of Congress and finding a common approach to which the White House and Republican lawmakers could agree. ...
Still, Mr. Cohn and Mr. Mnuchin have yet to produce the kind of comprehensive plan Mr. Trump has promised. A hastily compiled one-page document they presented in April proposing an array of tax cut bullet points in different fonts and type styles drew private ridicule from lawmakers in both parties and tax specialists throughout Washington as the mark of an administration wholly unprepared for the heavy legislative lift it was about to undertake. ...
“You get the sense that they think that somehow when they offer up all of this bravado about the deadlines and the plans that all of this is going to pop out of the oven like a cake fully baked,” said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, the ranking member of the Finance Committee who has co-written two bipartisan tax rewrite proposals but said he has yet to be asked to meet one-on-one with either Mr. Mnuchin or Mr. Cohn.
“From the standpoint of getting real tax reform, which takes buy-in from both sides, they have just frittered months and months away needlessly,” Mr. Wyden said.
- JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS and KATE KELLY, Two Bankers Are Selling Trump’s Tax Plan. Is Congress Buying?, NYT, AUG. 28, 2017

But before Republicans could consider Democratic demands, they still were struggling to overcome their own disagreements over the arcana of a rewritten tax code.

The clash over specific tax measures comes as the promised tax overhaul enters a pivotal phase. The White House and congressional Republicans expect to unveil the framework of a plan later this month, and the courting of Democrats has already begun. Mr. Trump dined with senators from both parties Tuesday night, reaching across the aisle out of concern that Republican disputes will make it impossible to pass a tax bill with only Republican votes. ...
Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, said on Tuesday that Republicans would use a parliamentary tool called reconciliation to bypass a filibuster in the Senate if Democrats refuse to get on board.
“If we can’t get 60 votes, we’re prepared to use reconciliation to get it done,” Mr. Mnuchin said at a CNBC conference.

But after months of deliberations, Republicans have yet to agree on their own plan.
- ALAN RAPPEPORT and THOMAS KAPLAN, Democrats Vow to Fight Republican Tax Provisions that Aid Rich, NYT, SEPT. 12, 2017

Among the many recent head-spinning statements issued from the Trump administration regarding tax reform, a comment by Gary Cohn, the chief White House economic adviser, about the estate tax stands out for its cavalier insensitivity.

“Only morons pay the estate tax,” Mr. Cohn is quoted as having told a group of Senate Democrats this year. If this reflects Mr. Cohn’s sentiment and that of the Trump administration in general, what message does it send to the public? That such taxpayers are mentally deficient fools?

I personally know a number of people who have willingly paid this tax, and I can assure Mr. Cohn and others that they are neither suckers nor morons, but have done so with a far larger sense of social responsibility and of the common good than most members of our current administration demonstrate.
- MICHAEL C. STEINER (from Cincinnati), Only Fools Pay Estate Tax?, Letter to the Editor, NYT, SEPT. 21, 2017

But the less-noticed reason for the decline in estate tax payments is lawyers. Estate tax planning has become so effective that wealthy families can now easily pass large portions of their estates to their heirs without paying the tax. There's nothing wrong or illegal about it: Shielding an estate from Uncle Sam often merely involves setting up an appropriate trust and filling it with assets. Other wealthy families can avoid the tax through gifts, since the amount that's exempt from gift taxes has also gone up.

The wealthy can also give a large share of their estate to charity, leaving little or none for the government.

"If you want, you can certainly reduce your taxable estate down to zero," said Roberton Williams of the Tax Policy Center. ...
But he said the amount of avoidance bolsters the argument by those who want to eliminate the tax.

"If you say that people don't pay it anyway, and you're going through all these machinations and tricks and lawyers to get out of it, then you're imposing unnecessary costs on society," he said. "The money is going to lawyers and accountants and not the government. So it could be viewed as wasteful spending."
- Robert Frank, 'Only morons pay the estate tax,' says White House's Gary Cohn, CNBC, 29 Aug 2017

“I’m not going to deal with petty stuff like that,” Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson told reporters on Wednesday, declining to refute an NBC report that he had privately called President Trump a “moron” this year. ...
Mr. Trump has openly undercut his aides as a matter of course, with deliberations that often play out in public view. ...
Most recently, when Mr. Tillerson said he was seeking to open lines of communication with North Korea, Mr. Trump told Mr. Tillerson (and some 40 million Twitter followers) that the secretary was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Mr. Trump’s pejorative nickname for Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader. ...
Barney Frank, the retired longtime Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, marveled at how wholly a sitting government in Washington had embraced a view of Washington villainy.

“You expect this from Congress,” not the executive, he said, noting that such open policy fissures within a White House were also something new. “It used to be considered wrong for the opposition party to differ with the president sharply on foreign policy. Now it’s not the opposition party that’s differing from the president on foreign policy, it’s the secretary of state.”
- MATT FLEGENHEIMER, ‘Petty Nonsense’ of Washington: Tillerson Joins in Thrashing the Capital, NYT, OCT. 4, 2017

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