The White House, the Treasury Department and congressional leaders issued a six-paragraph statement Thursday that tried to show off their commitment to pursuing tax reform without delving into any policy specifics.
The only problem? Tax overhauls live and die on details — and their absence, after months of weekly meetings aimed at achieving consensus, showed that the GOP’s dream of achieving tax reform may be years from completion.
Missing from the “Big Six” leaders’ statement were details such as what rates Republicans think major corporations, the wealthiest individuals and the middle class should pay. Also unresolved were the status of the estate tax and the fate of prized tax breaks, such as the ability to deduct business interest and state and local taxes.
It was even briefer and less detailed than the one-page tax proposal that the Treasury Department and White House released in April, which drew widespread criticism at the time for being too short.
The lone policy detail Thursday came in paragraph five when, after urging Congress to take the lead in writing tax legislation in the coming weeks, the group collectively killed off the so-called border adjustment tax, a pet project of House Speaker Paul Ryan and Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas).
The border tax, which would have applied to goods brought into the U.S., was one of the key ways that House tax writers had devised to pay for the lower rates that President Donald Trump covets, particularly his desire to reduce the corporate tax rate to 15 percent. Supporters had estimated that the border tax would bring in as much as $1 trillion over the coming decade that could have offset cuts elsewhere. But it prompted fierce opposition from retailers, other import-dependent industries and conservative activists.
A House leadership aide said Ryan willingly dropped the idea.
“His top priority is getting meaningful tax reform done,” the aide said. “He had no interest in holding up reform over this one policy, no matter how right he believes it to be.”
Border adjustment had to go now for the good of demonstrating consensus to constituents during August, rank-and-file Ways and Means members said.
“There is not question that this provision was controversial,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), adding that “Kevin Brady is not a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy.”
But some people who had been awaiting the statement expressed deep disappointment with the results.
“This literally started as principles yesterday and morphed into mindless pablum in 24 hours,” said one tax lobbyist, disappointed by the statement’s brevity.
"A few vague paragraphs isn’t even a ‘broad strokes’ proposal — it’s more like finger painting," Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) said in a statement.
Among other things, the death of the border tax leaves open the question of how the administration and Congress plan to offset deep tax cuts, as well as how low they intend to bring down rates.
“The big pieces are simplification and helping take off relief for the middle class,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during Thursday’s briefing. “Those are big places we are really focused. We will continue to do that. As you saw from the statement, the border adjustment tax was taken off the table. That’s another big step forward in the process.”
Besides Ryan and Brady, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn signed the statement.
The joint statement gave no details as to how the leaders plan to address middle-class anxiety through the tax code.
That lack of specificity underscored the difficulties of the revenue and policy battles ahead. And Republican lawmakers know it.
“That makes the conversation more difficult because we all now — 50 out of 52 of us — have to agree on some number for short-term deficits,” said Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, a Finance Committee member.
He and others on the panel see rate reduction as the key to unlocking more economic growth for the U.S. But the joint statement’s lack of rate targets for companies and individuals indicates that the leaders acknowledge that Trump’s 15 percent business tax goal would be too expensive.
It also indicates that other options for taxes on international income remain in play, such as a minimum tax favored in the Senate. The idea hasn’t proved popular in the past, but Congress is under pressure to address corporations’ motivations to shelter their money overseas rather than bring it back to the U.S.
As part of a switch to a territorial tax system, the minimum tax would affect the profits that U.S. companies book in foreign tax havens. It’s likely to face opposition from the pharmaceutical and technology industries that now enjoy low effective tax rates.
To some analysts and lobbyists, the statement also seemed to sideline the idea of letting all businesses immediately write off all new investments, known as full expensing.
In the meantime, the six principals who signed the statement will play a steering role as committee staffers begin drafting legislation over the coming recess. That coordination is meant to keep the process within the broadly agreed framework so that a unified plan emerges in September — avoiding the kind of disjointed effort that’s plaguing Republican efforts to upend the Affordable Care Act.
Rachael Bade contributed to this report.