An awful lot of Republican constituencies — mostly on Wall Street, but some on Main Street as well — are lobbying Senate tax-writers to include their pet provisions in the Trump tax bill. Some much-desired provisions, such as an increased tax break for “pass-through” business income for partnerships and consultancies, could be exorbitantly expensive to the Treasury, and thus require difficult trade-offs in Congress.
There’s one provision absent from the Senate bill, however, that could represent a painless concession to an extremely powerful Republican constituency. It’s the repeal of the Johnson Amendment banning tax-exempt organizations from open and partisan political activity. This was a major Trump campaign promise to conservative evangelical clergy who want no restrictions on politicking from the pulpit. And it was included in the House tax bill without a whole lot of attention beyond the ranks of its intended beneficiaries.
That the Johnson Amendment repeal is not in the Senate bill could have been an oversight, or more likely, the withholding of a favor that the favored constituency will be expected to earn. Unlike other desired provisions, the Johnson Amendment item is dirt cheap from a revenue point of view, since the IRS has never really enforced the ban on political activity by tax-exempt groups. But senators promoting this change could be richly rewarded, as the New York Times explains:
Among those on the fence [about the tax bill] are Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, who has expressed concerns about the bill’s impact on the budget deficit but favors ending the [Johnson Amendment]. In a possible sign of the horse trading to come to try to secure votes, a spokesman for Mr. Lankford said on Sunday that the senator was working to insert language into the Senate bill to roll back the [Johnson Amendment], and believed it had a good chance of being included.
That is an understatement. And so the Senate leadership can pick up a quick vote for the overall bill in exchange for a concession no one doubted it would make.
If the fiction of the Johnson Amendment repeal being a hard call for Republicans is maintained, the GOP may be able to get a lot of evangelical foot soldiers to lobby for passage of the bill whenever it is in peril. Yes, they may in reality be using the faithful to get a bill across the line that accentuates some decidedly non-Gospel redistribution of wealth to the rich. But that’s how Republican coalition politics work these days. And we all may pay if GOP campaign funders figure out they can channel money into religious organizations with no inhibitions about engaging in partisan politics.