WASHINGTON ― House Republicans swear they had enough time to review a 500-page conference report released last Friday night before they voted on what they thought would be the final tax bill Tuesday. (They actually had to vote on the bill again Wednesday because of a parliamentary mishap.) But when we asked GOP lawmakers supporting the legislation this week for just one basic detail of the bill ― the tax bracket percentages for individual income ― hardly anyone could list them.
HuffPost had to ask 18 House Republicans to identify the tax brackets before we finally came across one member who could: Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah. (We stopped asking after Stewart, meaning the percentage of the House GOP conference who knew this key aspect of the bill could have been much worse than our imperfect survey suggests.)
To be clear, we were just looking for seven figures: 10 percent, 12 percent, 22 percent, 24 percent, 32 percent, 35 percent and 37 percent. We were not looking for congressional representatives to display some savant-like ability and provide the income thresholds for each bracket. We just wanted to see if Republicans knew this one simple element of a bill they were rushing into law.
Among the GOP lawmakers who were shaky on those specifics were members of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, the chairwoman of the House Budget Committee (Rep. Diane Black of Tennessee) and the lead author of the bill in the House (Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady of Texas).
“So the seven brackets?” Brady said when we asked him. “So you got them right there. I’m heading to the floor and finishing my remarks on this tax cut and reform jobs act, so thank you.”
When we pressed Brady again to name the brackets, he dismissed the question. “So please, please. Seriously? I would like to finish my job,” he said.
Even though Brady almost certainly should know the brackets in a tax bill he is authoring, the Ways and Means chairman was in good company.
We repeatedly asked Budget Chairwoman Black, who repeatedly claimed she knew the brackets, but would not say them. At one point during our impromptu interview, an aide started a conversation in the elevator so the congresswoman could avoid the question. And then Black left the elevator for the House floor; we trailed behind still asking for the brackets with Black still saying she knew them without providing any proof.
As the head of the Budget Committee, Black oversaw the budget vehicle that allowed Republicans to pass the tax bill through a special legislative process without any Democratic support.
A number of House Republicans eventually admitted they didn’t know the brackets “off the top of my head.” Those were the words of Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.). And Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.). And Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.).
Other Republicans tried their best to squirm away from the question. Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) claimed she knew the brackets, but wouldn’t list them when we repeatedly asked. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said he could probably answer the question, but, loosely summoning Albert Einstein, added, “Why remember what you can write down?” And Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.), who was happy to tell us that Republicans were getting more familiar with the bill, went mute after we asked about the brackets.
Still other Republican representatives tried their best to guess the brackets, including Roger Williams (R-Texas), Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) and Chris Collins (R-N.Y.).
Gallagher and Cramer were close, but each left out one or two.
Asking those members of Congress to name the seven tax brackets was, of course, a gotcha question. It was also an entirely fair question ― listen to our interviews below and you can hear that the lawmakers knew they were supposed to know.
Republicans began their quest for tax reform by promising a simpler tax code ― one with fewer brackets, even though the relationship between brackets and simplicity is tenuous at best. Still, by their own words, reducing the number of brackets was a key goal. And the bill would be slightly easier to comprehend if there were fewer brackets ― which there aren’t ― although it still wouldn’t really be easier to file your taxes.
Part of the reason House Republicans were so unfamiliar with the numbers was because House Republicans ended up swallowing the Senate’s tax bracket proposal, along with a number of deductions that the House eliminated but the Senate kept. (That also undermined the House GOP’s claims about simplicity.) While the final bill was supposed to be a compromise, Senate Republicans clearly won some key battles, including on the individual tax brackets, so it’s at least a little understandable that House Republicans weren’t as familiar with those details.
But that wasn’t the excuse we got from the lawmakers themselves.
House Republicans told us, time and again, that they were “very familiar” with the details of this legislation. When we suggested they didn’t have much time to read the final legislation after it was released Friday night, they said they had plenty of time. “We’ve had several weeks! I read it on the plane two weeks in a row!” Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) told HuffPost.
But how much should we trust that if, in the next breath, those lawmakers didn’t know basic facts about the bill?
The individual tax brackets aren’t inconsequential; they just weren’t what Republicans were truly focused on. If you were to ask any House Republican what the new corporate tax rate will be, they almost certainly would have been able to tell you it’s 21 percent. If you asked them the top individual rate only, they likely would have been able to tell you it was 37 percent. Many members, in fact, were able to list the top bracket, which, as every member also likely knows, has been lowered from 39.6 percent.
The rates in the middle, however, the rates that actually apply to the middle class ― the people Republicans kept saying the bill was aimed to help ― were not numbers the lawmakers knew. At least not specifically. They didn’t appear to have studied where individual rates were previously and where they’re going to be at various income levels ― or if they did, they didn’t study very hard.
GOP lawmakers were far more focused on corporate rates and the tax rates on higher incomes that affect them personally.
As Roger Williams ― who has an estimated worth between $20 million and $70 million ― said about the individual tax rate, “I know what mine’s going to be.”
But Republicans truly want you to believe they know the ins and outs of this legislation.
When we asked Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-La.) how familiar Republicans were with this bill, he said Republicans were “as well-versed on this tax cut bill as any other bill as we’ve ever voted on.”
And then, when we pressed Abraham to name the brackets, he listed 10 percent, 12 percent, 14 percent, 16 percent, 22 percent, 28 percent ... and trailed off. That’s three right out of seven.
You can listen to the interviews of each member we asked here:
Kevin Brady (R-Texas)
Diane Black (R-Tenn.)
Roger Williams (R-Texas)
Tom McClintock (R-Calif.)
David McKinley (R-W.Va.)
Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.)
Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.)
Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.)
Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.)
Bill Johnson (R-Ohio)
Chris Collins (R-N.Y.)
Jeff Denham (R-Calif.)
Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.)
Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.)
Billy Long (R-Mo.)
Ralph Abraham (R-La.)
Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.)
And here’s the successful attempt by Chris Stewart (R-Utah) at naming the brackets.