Editorial: Senate tax bill sets dangerous precedents

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., added an amendment to the GOP tax bill which would have exempted colleges that don’t receive federal funding. The amendment didn’t pass. (Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/MCT)

With last-minute amendments being proposed left and right, deals being struck and an extensive tax bill being passed late into the night, the U.S. Senate floor might have been wilder Friday night than the streets of Oakland.

Under the leadership of Senator Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., 51 Republicans, including Pat Toomey, R-Pa., voted shortly before 2 a.m. to pass a bill containing several handwritten revisions not much more than an hour old. A mixed bag of revisions to the tax code, the bill nixed some of the most objectionable portions of the House’s version — and at the same time attempted to add others.

One of the provisions not included in the Senate’s bill came from Toomey’s office 24 hours ahead of the bill’s ultimate passage — before being promptly swatted down. Toomey’s amendment would have exempted one specific college from a new tax in what outwardly appears to be an act of favoritism.

The school, Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian school in southern Michigan, has ties to both Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and GOP mega-donor Charles Koch. If Toomey’s amendment had passed, the school wouldn’t have been required to pay taxes on its sizeable endowment. But Senate Democrats took opposition to the proposal, voting it down.

I can’t find anybody else in America who benefits from this particular provision,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Friday during a debate over the measure. “That doesn’t strike me as right.”

Toomey’s amendment would have exempted Hillsdale from a 1.4 percent tax on all private colleges and universities with endowments greater than $500,000 per student, a new provision in the Senate’s bill. It’s unclear yet exactly what outcomes the measure will have — the money being taxed could potentially otherwise go toward scholarships for less affluent students.

For now, Swarthmore College is the only school in Pennsylvania that will actually have to pay the new tax. But Congress could easily use this bill in the future as a precedent for increasing taxes on academia in order to fund tax cuts for corporations and the very wealthy.

Another feature notably absent in the Senate’s version of the tax bill is the rightfully maligned proposal to tax graduate students’ tuition fee waivers as income. The measure, included in the House’s bill, would have likely devastated graduate school attendance and research in the United States and it’s a relief that it’s absent from this version.

Now that both chambers of Congress have their own versions, legislation still needs to go through a process of reconciliation in order to send a single piece of legislation to President Donald Trump to sign. This means that, while the rules passed last weekend by the Senate might go to the president, they might also never end up seeing the light of day as law.

The legislation the Senate passed Friday night was crafted in secrecy, and it’s likely the uncertainty surrounding many of its provisions is at least somewhat intentional. The passage of this bill is largely inevitable, but that doesn’t mean that legislators shouldn’t fight to ensure that the final version avoids the worst aspects of the House’s bill.

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