The GOP Raised Taxes on Churches to Fund Its Giveaway to the Rich

Hail Mammon. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Republican Party has many masters. On matters of reproductive choice, it answers to the Christian right; on foreign policy, to the military-industrial complex; on immigration, the racial paranoia of their rank-and-file constituents.

But the conservative movement’s largest shareholders are — and always have been — reactionary plutocrats hell-bent on maximizing the amount of wealth they can extract from the lower orders. Some of these would-be oligarchs have sympathy for the GOP’s other projects; but virtually all see them as secondary to the task of restoring the Mammon-given right of the superrich to hoard unaccountable, economic power. And the Koch Network votes its shares.

Thus, when Republicans returned to power on the back of a xenophobic populist — who had campaigned on preserving entitlements, soaking hedge-fund managers, building a border wall, and making $1 trillion worth of investments in public infrastructure — their priorities did not change. The fact that a majority of GOP voters opposed tax cuts for the rich and corporations — and supported higher federal spending on health care — was irrelevant. So too, was the fact that an unprecedented drug-overdose epidemic was devastating many of the most staunchly Republican areas of the country. The absence of a popular mandate for tax cuts — and the presence of a public health emergency that could only be quelled through federal investment in addiction treatment — changed nothing. The Republican Congress appropriated $6 billion to combat an opioid crisis that had just killed more than 42,000 Americans in a single year; it added $1.5 trillion to the federal deficit for regressive tax cuts.

And the actual cost of the GOP’s giveaway to the economic elite was far larger than that. To keep the legislation’s price tag at $1.5 trillion, Republicans had to offset massive tax breaks for the rich by eliminating tax benefits prized by the (merely) affluent, the middle class — and, remarkably, Evangelical churches.

That last bit somehow slipped under the radar last fall; many conservative congregations are just now realizing that their own political party slapped a complicated new tax on their parking lots. Politico explains:

[T]o help defray the budgetary cost of [tax cuts on businesses and individuals], Republicans simultaneously pared tax breaks for workers’ fringe benefits, which is projected to raise around $40 billion over the next decade.

They were mainly trimming deductions companies have long taken for entertaining clients and providing meals for employees. But Republicans also wanted to treat nonprofits equally, which proved challenging. Because those organizations don’t pay income taxes, lawmakers couldn’t take away fringe-benefit deductions. So instead they created a 21 percent tax on the value of some of nonprofit employees’ benefits.

The main benefits affected are transportation-related, like free parking in a lot or a garage and subway and bus passes. It also targets meals provided to workers and, in some circumstances, may affect gym memberships.

Now, one can make sound arguments for taxing religious institutions, and eliminating tax breaks for fringe employee benefits. The former forces the government to decide what does and does not count as a religion, while also subsidizing many organizations that do not serve what a majority of Americans would regard as “the public good.” The latter, meanwhile, biases the forms of compensation that corporations chose to provide to their employees.

But it’s harder to make a case for raising taxes on churches that provide employees with free meals — for the purpose of financing tax cuts for the richest 0.1 percent of Americans, who already owned as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent combined, before Trump’s tax cuts took effect.

Further, for nonprofits, the costs of the GOP’s new tax extend beyond its sticker price. As tax-exempt organizations, they have little experience in — or infrastructure for — complying with the IRS. And the tax on worker benefits is unusually complicated, as it requires nonprofits to both identify what qualifies as such a benefit, and to calculate the precise value of said benefit. This raises thorny, almost metaphysical questions, as Politico notes:

Churches and other groups want to know how they are supposed to go about calculating the value of things like parking spaces for employees. Some wonder if the garages provided as part of clergy residences are now taxable.

Universities want to know if the bus services they provide for faculty and students are taxable and how they figure out how much they owe. Orchestras want to know how to treat musicians who may perform in different locations.

“At what point is something a travel reimbursement? And at what point is it a commuter benefit?” said Heather Noonan, vice president for advocacy at the League of American Orchestras.

In 2016, white Evangelical Christians backed Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a margin of 81 to 16 percent. The GOP could not exist in anything resembling its current form without this demographic’s overwhelming support. And yet, the party decided that it was not worth trimming its tax cuts by a few billion dollars to spare their houses of worship from a novel logistical and financial headache.

By all accounts, many (if not most) Republican lawmakers did not know about this provision when they voted it into law. But that fact is itself a testament to the GOP donor class’s domination of the Republican Party: Congressional Republicans rushed through an overhaul of the tax code — with barely any hearings or debate — precisely because they understood that their paymasters’ priorities were deeply unpopular, and thus, had to be enacted as rapidly and discreetly as possible.

There is little reason to believe that Republicans will pay any price for letting money-lenders leech off the Christian right’s temples. For one thing, the Trump tax cuts were very kind to the (immensely wealthy) megachurch pastors who lead the white Evangelical movement. For another, the rank-and-file religious right is thrilled with their libertine president, who has both delivered tangible policy victories on abortion and contraceptives, and (perhaps, more importantly) put ungrateful black athletes, godless liberal elites, and murderous illegals in their respective, subordinate places. In March, the Public Religion Research Institute poll found Trump’s support among white Evangelicals stood at 75 percent.

The GOP Raised Taxes on Churches to Fund Cuts for the Rich