For months now, as congressional Republicans have blocked repeated attempts to extend benefits to the long-term unemployed, as they’ve fought to deny low-income Americans access to health insurance, as they’ve advocated to cut tens of billions from the food stamp program, as they’ve resisted proposals to raise the minimum wage, they have simultaneously professed their commitment to American workers and the poor.
Senator Patty Murray put forth a new test of that commitment on Wednesday, by introducing legislation to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC is already one of the largest and most effective anti-poverty programs, rewarding low-wage earners for their work and lightening their tax burden. It’s also one of the very few specific anti-poverty policies Republicans have praised in recent months.
Murray’s bill, the “21st Century Worker Tax Cut Act,” would increase the maximum credit for childless adults and create a new tax deduction for families with two working parents. It's intended to complement the Democrats’ campaign for a higher minimum wage, and to force Republicans to take a real stand on help for American workers. Given their recent nods towards the EITC, one might reasonably expect Republicans to consider Murray's proposal seriously. (President Obama also proposed an EITC expansion in his budget for 2015.) Even the tax loopholes Murray proposes closing in order to pay for the expansion have already been singled out for elimination by the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Robert Camp. But these are not reasonable times.
The Republican’s recent expressions of support for expanding the EITC have always seemed more opportunistic than sincere. Rather than actively working to extend the credit to more Americans, the GOP instead uses the EITC as “a protective shield against populist attacks,” as Jonathan Chait put it; specifically, as a counterpoint to calls from the left to raise the minimum wage.
“The minimum wage makes it more expensive for employers to hire low-skilled workers, but the EITC, on the other hand, gives workers a boost—without hurting their prospects,” Representative Paul Ryan said of the EITC in a January speech at the Brookings Institution. “It gives families flexibility—it helps them take ownership of their lives.”
Conservative pundits and academics have taken a similar line. Two economists at the American Enterprise Institute argued last year that “expanding the earned income tax credit is a much more efficient way to fight poverty than increasing the minimum wage.” Steve Moore of the Heritage Foundation argued in favor of a higher EITC in January, as did former Bush advisor Glenn Hubbard. Another former Bush advisor, Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw, wrote recently that the EITC was “distinctly better” than raising the minimum wage because the costs are born by taxpayers rather than employers.
In his own much-hyped poverty speech in January, Senator Marco Rubio advocated for replacing the EITC with a “federal wage enhancement” subsidy. The vague contours of the alternative he proposed suggested that what he had in mind was nearly identical to the EITC, but with more support for people without kids.
Rubio was right to point out that one of the major shortcomings of the current EITC is that it offers minimal assistance to childless workers. As the program operates now, people without children who are under 25 are ineligible, and the maximum credit for those between 25 and 64 is $487. Families with children receive more substantial benefits. In 2011, their average credit was $2,905.
Murray’s bill addresses Rubio’s professed concern for childless workers by lowering the eligibility age to 21 and raising the maximum credit for childless workers to about $1,400. Those changes would benefit thirteen million people, according to a Treasury Department estimate. The legislation also increases support for families with two working parents by allowing a secondary earner to deduct twenty percent of their income from their federal taxes. This could offset childcare, transportation, and other costs associated with entering the workforce, thus encouraging more stay-at-home parents to find jobs. More than seven million families would benefit from this new deduction, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.
The bill also doubles the penalties for tax payers who fail to comply with the Internal Revenue Service’s “due diligence” requirement, a reform that addresses Republican concerns about the costs of improper claims.
If Republicans really wanted to use the EITC as a vehicle for boosting low wages, this legislation provides an excellent starting point for negotiation. But they’re unlikely to engage with it seriously, because their lauding of the EITC was never serious to begin with. For example, Rubio’s proposal to expand the credit for childless workers would have been accomplished by taking money away from workers with kids, instead of by increasing the size of the program overall.
Republicans will face a tricky situation if Harry Reid brings Murray's bill up for a vote in the Senate. “If Republicans aren’t interested in supporting this bill, they’ll need to explain why they are rejecting the alternative that they have often pointed to in order to justify opposing raising the minimum wage," a senior Democratic aide told The Nation.
If recent votes on unemployment insurance are any indication, Republicans are far more likely to risk hypocrisy and find reasons to kill the bill than do any real governing, even on policies they profess to support. If a vote doesn’t accomplish much for low-wage workers, it may at least blow away some of the smoke from the GOP’s show.