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Sunday Political Brunch: A Taxing Problem -- September 3, 2017

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CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA – It’s the quiet before the storm. While everyone enjoys Labor Day weekend and the last vestiges of summer, Congress is getting ready to return to Washington, D.C., later this week. President Trump and many Congressional leaders want to tackle the issue of tax reform right out of the box, but other priorities are demanding attention, too. Let’s “brunch” on that this week.

“What Is Tax Reform?” – Tax reform should not be confused with the much sexier issue of tax cuts. If I am getting a 10 percent tax cut, that’s real money. I can figure out what is going back into my wallet, so it’s an easier sell for Congress and the voting public. But tax reform is more complex, allowing for reconfiguring of tax brackets and items which may or may not remain deductible, such as home mortgage interest. It can be dry stuff, sexy only to lawyers and accountants. Plus, its tangible results are often felt in a matter of years, rather than right away. My point is that Congress could pass tax reform before the end of this year, but it may not be reflected in peoples’ pocketbooks until April 15, 2019. That’s five months after the 2018 election!

“Will I Make More Money?” – For many voters – pardon the pun – this is “the bottom line”! If I make $60,000 per year and my federal taxes are 15 percent, I am paying in $9,000. A tax rate cut to 10 percent will put an extra $3,000 in my pocket every year. That’s easy. But then they talk of reducing or eliminating the home mortgage deduction, or tuition tax credits, and other allowances only an accountant may know about. It gets cloudy and hard to figure what my real savings might be. Tax reform involves a lot of math (clearly the least favorite subject in school for most people.) And if a lot of the tax advantages go to high income earners, many people may be turned off, or at best be indifferent. It’s hard to make tax reform a bumper sticker campaign because of the complexities.

“Past Tax Reforms” – Tax reforms were most notable in the Reagan administration. Just seven months into his first term, he got the first of his tax reforms passed. Income taxes were cut an average of 25 percent over three years, but the federal deficit exploded. Some mid-course corrections were made in 1982, and the economy finally erupted with some of the biggest growth ever recorded. Reagan was easily reelected in a 1984 landslide. The Reagan administration passed another major tax reform bill in 1986, one that simplified the tax code by reducing 15 tax brackets to just four. The Reagan era of economic boom is still highly regarded by many.

“Should This Have Been Done First?” – I am a big believer in having a laundry list of accomplishments as a politician, including hitting a home run on your first at-bat. In 2001, President George W. Bush got a bipartisan education reform bill known as “No Child Left Behind” passed into law by the end of May. It gave him an initial victory. Had I led the Trump White House I would have gotten the infrastructure reform bill through Congress first because both Democrats and Republicans were on board. The Obamacare repeal could have waited, especially when there were early signs it was in big trouble in both the House and Senate.

“Infrastructure” – Just about everyone agrees that the nation’s roads, highways, and bridges are in sad shape. So, what do you do? Look, this is classic pork barrel politics. Investment in infrastructure is something tangible that Washington, D.C., does which is felt in just about every state and Congressional district. First, it puts people back to work, fixing things that just about every driver will tell you need to be fixed. It pumps money into local economies, and produces visible, tangible local results. It helps generate more state income taxes and sales taxes, so it fills state coffers, too. The downside is that the jobs are never permanent; and when the highways are done, many of those workers may be unemployed again. But it can provide a healthy, visible short-term spike in the economy.

“Should Obamacare Have Waited?” -- This is a tough question. In hindsight, many people say “yes.” I think the proponents of repealing and replacing Obamacare misread the tea leaves, when they thought repeal would be easy. Here’s the dynamic: The GOP-led House and Senate had voted many times to repeal Obamacare, knowing full well that President Obama would veto it. It was an easy vote. But fast-forward to 2017, and states such as West Virginia were faced with the prospect of pushing 200,000 people off the health care rolls in one of the poorest states in the nation. Suddenly, a repeal vote was not as easy to make. That was the case for many lawmakers in states that are struggling. Good research would have pointed this out last spring; but, instead, wishful thinking became an illogical political guide.

“What Have You Done for Me Lately?” – President Trump has been feuding with his top economic advisor, Gary Cohn, since Cohn was publicly critical of the President’s response to the violence in Charlottesville. Cohn told The Financial Times, “The administration can and must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning" hate groups. Many observers believe Cohn is the linchpin of passing tax reform, and Trump would be hard pressed without him.

“Defending the President; Defending My Seat?” – A big quandary for many Republicans in Congress will be: “Do I defend my own record, or do I have to defend the President’s record, too?” As I have pointed out here often, almost all House Republicans won their seats on their own, without the President’s help. On the other hand, the Republican Senate majority owes its continuation of power directly to Trump’s coattails, as he helped carry key seats in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. But those three Republicans are safe, as they aren’t up for reelection until 2022. I predict most Congressional Republicans will simply run on their own records and keep their distance from the White House.

What would you change about our tax system or tax code? Just click the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

Mark Curtis Ed.D., is Chief Political Reporter for the five Nexstar Media TV stations serving West Virginia, including viewership in Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.

© Mark Curtis Media, LLC

Photo courtesy: cnsnews.comI

Sunday Political Brunch: A Tale of Two Presidents -- August 27, 2017

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SAVANNAH, GEORGIA – My political road trip in the past week took me to Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and then back to West Virginia. Along the way, I watched a number of President Trump's speeches, and I was left with the impression that this is “A Tale of Two Presidents.” Let’s “brunch” on that this week:

“A Tale of Two Presidents” – As the story begins, “It was the best of times; it was the weirdest of times.” Okay, pardon me for improvising the classic Charles Dickens line. But I watched President Trump deliver a very “Presidential” address Monday night about Afghanistan. He was calm, but firm, methodical and logical. That he admitted that he departed from his normal decision-making process and previously-held positions showed humility and the ability to be reflective and flexible. It had a Presidential elegance. The next night, at a campaign rally in Phoenix, he seemingly had an out-of-body experience. It was stark and just odd. I kept wondering, “Is this the same man I watched the night before?”

“Déjà Vu” – As jarring as this disparate display was, it wasn’t the first of its kind. The previous week, the President gave three very different statements on the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. On that Saturday, he condemned a “display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.” After a short pause, he repeated the line, “On many sides.” It looked and sounded like an ad-libbed departure from his actual script, and it brought a wrath of criticism. On Monday, he gave a much more measured speech, using a teleprompter at the White House. “Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including KKK, Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, and other hate groups are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” The next day he had a combative news conference and was back with his “many sides” line that inflamed passions once again.

“Staying on Message” – In the campaign of 1992 and in the early days of President Bill Clinton’s administration, top officials often used the phrase, “Staying on message!” It was their mantra for dealing with a very undisciplined Clinton, who was prone to be so chatty and candid, that he often talked himself into controversy. Their goal was to have a bumper-sticker mentality to their campaign themes. They wanted to keep it memorable and brief; and - most of all - they strove for consistency in their messages. It wasn’t always successful with the verbose Clinton, but it was a wise strategy.

“Congressional Relations” – The most difficult place for dealing with the President’s mixed messages appears to be in the halls of Congress. His most stark messages are when he lashes out at members of his own party when legislation fails or things just don’t go right. This week I spoke about that very dynamic with Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). “What is unusual about this is that the President does take the opportunity to jab his own party a bit more - as in a lot more - than most sitting Presidents do when they are frustrated with their own party. And that does present challenges; but at the same time, we want to go the same place. The President wants to put people back to work. We, as a party - Republicans - want to put people back to work; into wages and jobs where they see a good future,” Capito said. Well they failed on the Obamacare repeal; we’ll see how tax reform goes next.

“Haley’s Comet” – While in South Carolina I thought a lot about former Governor Nikki Haley (R-SC), who is now U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Long before President Trump made his “fire and fury” comments about North Korea’s nuclear missile testing, Ambassador Haley was the first to offer tough words. “The time for talk is over,” said Haley on July 31. She has also spoken forcefully about recent troubles with Iran and Venezuela. Haley is 45 years old, a two-term Governor, and a rising star on the national scene. If Secretary of State Rex Tillerson departs before serving a full term, Haley may be the logical successor. Further down the road, I think she has a shot at the White House. You heard it here first!

“The Importance of Accuracy” – I’ve been in the media forty years, and there is nothing more sacred and important in our business than accuracy. Getting the facts straight is challenging, and the facts can never be scrutinized enough. But we also expect accuracy from the people we cover. President Trump made two grossly-inaccurate statements in his Phoenix speech. First, he said the TV crews were turning off their cameras so as not to cover him and his remarks. "Look back there, the live red lights. They're turning those suckers off fast out there. They're turning those lights off fast. Like CNN. CNN does not want its falling viewership to watch what I'm saying tonight,” Trump said. I watched CNN and switched back and forth with Fox and other networks. No one stopped their broadcast. He also said the media edited out remarks from his Tuesday speech on Charlottesville. "Did they report that I said racism is evil? You know why? Because they are the dishonest media." In truth, most networks carried that speech live, including the “racism is evil” remarks.

“Why All of This Matters?” – I like President Trump from the vantage point that he is one of the most fascinating political figures I’ve ever covered. He generates headlines and copy – whether you agree with him or not. I’m not here to endorse or condemn his policies; I’m here to cover the news he generates. One of the things I’ve learned over the years of covering politics is that communications need to be clear and consistent. Mixed messages from politicians can confuse the public and erode support for the politicians' agenda. I honestly thought the appointment of General John Kelly as White House Chief-of-Staff would lead to a more disciplined White House. In some respects, the jury is still out. But with a President prone to spontaneous and provocative tweets, mixed messages are more likely to be the rule, rather than the exception.

What are your thoughts after seven months of the Trump Presidency? Just click the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

Mark Curtis, Ed.D., is a nationally-known political analyst and author. He is the Chief Political Reporter for the five Nexstar Media TV stations serving West Virginia.

© 2017, Mark Curtis Media, LLC -- Photo Courtesy: cbsnews.com

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