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CBO report predicts GOP tax plan would hammer poorest Americans

Congress returns from Thanksgiving to face an extreme to-do list for next month, including funding the government and voting on a tax plan. That comes on the heels of a public apology by Sen. Al Franken after allegations of groping women, and the decision by Rep. John Conyers to temporarily step down from the Judiciary Committee. Lisa Desjardins joins William Brangham to take a closer look at the tax plan.

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  • William Brangham:

    Congress is getting back to work with only a few working days left before the year ends, and taxes are top of the agenda.

    But it was clear today that lawmakers also have to reckon with the issue of sexual misdeeds.

    Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.

  • Senator Al Franken:

    I am tremendously sorry.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    For Minnesota Democratic Senator Al Franken, a public step, a news conference, his first since being accused of groping and sexual misconduct by four different women.

  • Senator Al Franken:

    This has been a shock and it's been extremely humbling. I am embarrassed. I feel ashamed. What I'm going to do is, I'm going to start my job, and go back to work. I'm going to work as hard as I can for the people of Minnesota.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That one day after news in the House. Michigan Representative John Conyers temporarily stepped down yesterday as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. The 27-term congressman faces allegations he harassed and pushed for sexual favors from multiple female staffers. He used taxpayer funds to settle one of those complaints.

    Conyers remained defiant. "I deny these allegations," he said in a statement. "I very much look forward to vindicating myself and my family before the House Committee on Ethics."

    Earlier Sunday, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pointedly withheld judgment in his case.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi:

    We are strengthened by due process. Just because someone is accused — and was it one accusation? Is it two? I think there has to be — John Conyers is an icon in our country.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Later, she took a different tone, saying, "Zero tolerance means consequences."

    Meantime, regarding someone hoping to be in Congress, Alabama Republican Roy Moore, accused of molesting teenage girls, has a new opponent.

    Retired Marine Colonel Lee Busby announced his bid as a write-in. Busby used to work for now White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, this as President Trump stressed his support for Moore, and criticized Moore's Democratic opponent, Doug Jones.

    "The last thing we need in Alabama and the U.S. Senate is a Schumer-Pelosi puppet who is weak on crime, weak on the border," he tweeted.

    In the swirl of all this, Congress faces an extreme to-do list for the next month- funding the government, addressing a number of expiring programs, from intelligence surveillance to flood insurance to health care for low-income kids.

    And key on the agenda? Voting on a tax reform, notching a critical legislative win for the Republican-led Congress. President Trump met with members of the Senate Finance Committee today and later voiced optimism.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I think the tax bill is doing very well, and I think the Republicans are going to be very proud of it.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Republicans can only afford to lose two Senate votes, and several remain on the fence, that as a Congressional Budget Office report released yesterday estimated that the bill could impact low-income Americans more negatively than previously thought.

    Senate leaders plan to vote on the bill as early as this week.

  • William Brangham:

    And Lisa is here with me now to discuss that CBO analysis and what else we know about the tax legislation.

    Hi.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Hi.

  • William Brangham:

    So, CBO analysis is out. I would like to go through with what this means for different segments of the American population.

    Let's start with, what does this do for the poorest Americans?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's the big headline out of the CBO report that we got over the weekend.

    In the past, William, we have seen analysis for how you do with the tax cuts portion of this, and in the Senate bill in particular, it phases out, for example, kind of in the out years. And so a lot of Americans would see a tax increase at the very end of this bill.

    But what the CBO did is different. It didn't just look at the tax cuts. It looked at the net effect, because, William, this bill is so large that it would likely trigger automatic spending cuts in various programs.

    So, the CBO said, OK, let's look at the combined effect of those two things, how your taxes would change under this bill, plus any benefits you get, any government programs that you get, any loss you would see from spending cuts.

    And they found that those two things combined would have a dramatically larger effect on lower classes, people earning under $40,000, many times the effects we have seen in other analyses so far.

  • William Brangham:

    And impact meaning they would be paying more.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right. They would be paying a little bit more in taxes, but they would lose a lot more in benefits, as programs like Medicaid, maybe Medicare would be hit by cuts.

  • William Brangham:

    Does the GOP agree with this analysis that this is really going to hammer the poor in America?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    What they have said in the past — it's notable, first of all, that none of the Republican committees overseeing this bill responded to my questions about this today directly.

    They usually do. They're busy. But, still, we don't know their word on this. But in the past, William, what they have said is that the numbers actually don't give you the full picture, because they say what they're trying to do here is to cut taxes especially for the middle class.

    And they say what is happening with the lower classes is, they have the biggest amount of benefits in the system, so what looks like a big cut to them is something coming off of already what the Republicans think are benefits that are outsized and a bloated government.

    Now, of course, Democrats argue against that. They say the lower classes are the ones that need the biggest amount of benefits to begin with.

  • William Brangham:

    You mentioned this middle-class tax cut. That's always been the president's main objective in this.

    What does the analysis show about that?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    All right, let's talk about where we are with middle classes.

    The first statistic I want to look at is an important one. This is actually from a different analysis, from the Joint Committee on Taxation.

    They found that, looking at the Senate bill, if you look at anyone making over $40,000, all of the income groups over that, on average, would see their taxes cut for the next eight years. Now, that's a big deal. That's what the Republicans want to do.

  • William Brangham:

    Sure.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    They want to cut everyone's taxes.

    But, William, the average really doesn't apply here. You can't look at the tax cuts that way, because many millions of Americans fall into very broad groups whose deductions would be taken away.

    Let's start with one big one, the medical expenses deduction. If you have a very large amount of medical expenses, anything more than 10 percent of your income, you can deduct that on your taxes. So, say someone is facing a cancer diagnosis, and they don't have strong insurance. They're paying $100,000 out of pocket. They can deduct that from their taxes now.

    The Senate and House bills would wipe that away.

  • William Brangham:

    That's a huge tax increase.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It would be a massive punch to the gut for people who are already dealing with a major health crisis.

    Then another group — we talked about before state and local taxes. Now, this is also a very huge group. Almost a quarter or maybe more than a quarter of Americans take state and local taxes off of their federal taxes. Of course, this affects mostly high-tax states. New Jersey gets brought up a lot, New York, but it's also states like Maryland, California, Virginia.

    A quarter of million American taxpayers would lose that deduction, most or all of it. And so, when you say, on average, the middle class would see a tax cut, well, really, everyone is unique, and you see a lot of unique situations where the taxes might go up.

  • William Brangham:

    The criticism of all this, of course, by the Democrats and some economists is that this is in a massive giveaway to the wealthiest Americans and corporations. How true is that?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right.

    So, I looked at all of the new data we got, including CBO's yesterday, and I compared it, looked at how much benefit you get or loss you get, combining all the spending cuts, the taxes, everything.

    And, in fact, it's true that the lowest-paid Americans would see the greatest harm. And if you go all the way to the top of the scale, by many times, those at the highest income level, say, $500,000 and above, would see not only the biggest benefit in dollar terms, William, but also in terms of percentage of their own income.

    And that's per person. So, it's not a broad category. I really dove in on that analysis.

  • William Brangham:

    Lisa Desjardins, as always, thank you so much.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Sure.

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