President Donald Trump has described the Republican-crafted tax bill that is expected to be passed in Congress this week as “a great big, beautiful Christmas present.”
While the changes in the tax code will certainly be a gift to some Americans, the reason the bill is drawing comparisons to a festively decorated evergreen has more to do with, well, ornaments.
The origin of the metaphor is unclear, but according to Harvard Kennedy School professor Linda Bilmes, it refers to when Congress agrees to add specific funding requests to a bill for individual members of Congress, often in return for that member’s vote.
“These can be small-ticket earmarks (such as money for projects in a member’s district) or huge spending items that a particular member wants funded — and makes a condition of his or her vote,” said Bilmes, an expert on government budgeting and finance.
“Any time a vote is close, there is a tendency to add these kind of sweeteners,” she said. “The closer the vote, the more sweeteners.”
The end result can be a bill with a number of extraneous — and often unrelated — provisions added on like ornaments on a Christmas tree. One of the first prominent uses of the term came in a 1956 Time magazine article, in which Sen. Clinton Anderson, a New Mexico Democrat, got fed up as his chamber introduced more than a hundred amendments for a farm bill.
“This bill gets more and more like a Christmas tree; there’s something on it for nearly everyone,” Anderson said.
The current Republican tax bill hasn’t gone through such an open amendment process, but it has included a number of special provisions to pick up much-needed votes from the party’s more moderate members.
For example, the final version of the bill includes a provision to authorize oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, which has been a longtime priority of Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who helped sink her party’s health care bill, says the ANWR provision would “strengthen our energy security and create new wealth.” Bilmes sees it a bit differently.
“Most Americans don’t know that one of the provisions of this ‘tax reform’ bill is to allow the pristine habitat of polar bears to be destroyed,” she said.
Sen. Bob Corker, who previously voted against the bill but now supports it, is also catching blowback following the last-minute addition of a real estate tax break. As the Washington Post reported Monday, the provision, which was quickly dubbed the #corkerkickback, would benefit Corker, among others, though the Tennessee senator and fellow Republicans denied that he was involved in its addition.
One less politically charged example is the temporary expansion of the medical expense deduction, which helped secure the vote of Maine Sen. Susan Collins, another more moderate Republican.
As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month, the Senate bill also included other amendments from key Republican votes, including a tax exemption for mortgage companies from South Dakoa Sen. Mike Rounds, an exemption for car dealers from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, an exemption for the cruise-ship industry from Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, and an oil and gas industry benefit from Texas Sen. John Cornyn.
That said, a controversial amendment from Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, which would have shielded a single conservative college from a new university endowment tax, was in fact struck down in the Senate.
According to Bilmes, there are some cases in which this style of legislating can provide worthwhile benefits for a small group of people, such as funding research for a rare disease. However, adding too many ornaments to the Christmas tree — or in this case, a trillion-dollar tax bill — can result in higher costs.
“Passing legislation this way always drives up the cost of the bill,” Bilmes said. “While it may provide benefits to specific individuals, it is questionable whether there is general benefit to taxpayers that exceeds the cost — in other words, it may not be an efficient use of money.”
However, Bilmes says these additions can also be useful to lawmakers as an “excuse” to constituents for their vote in favor of an unpopular bill.
“Many lawmakers are worried that their constituents will be angry if they vote for it, so they are telling the Republican leadership that the ‘price’ for their vote is some local issue,” Bilmes said. “That way these lawmakers will have an ‘excuse’ to explain to their constituents why they voted for tax cuts for billionaires.”