Dionne: The GOP's church tax

Dionne: The GOP's church tax

December 6th, 2018 by E.J. Dionne Jr./Washington Post Writers Group in Opinion Times Commentary

FILE - This Feb. 9, 2018, file photo shows the Capitol Dome of the Capitol Building at sunrise in Washington. The federal budget deficit has surged to $779 billion in fiscal 2018, its highest level in six years as President Donald Trump's tax cuts caused the government to borrow more heavily in order to cover its spending. The Treasury Department said Monday, Oc. 15, that the deficit climbed $113 billion from fiscal 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Photo by Andrew Harnik

Republicans tax churches to help pay for big corporate giveaway.

You would be forgiven for thinking that this is a headline from The Onion or the fantasy of some left-wing website. But it's exactly what happened in the big corporate tax cut the GOP passed last year.

Now — under pressure from churches, synagogues, and other nonprofits — embarrassed leaders of a party that casts itself as religious liberty's last line of defense are trying to fix a provision that is a monument to both their carelessness and their hypocrisy.

The authors of the measure apparently didn't even understand what they were doing — or that's their alibi to faith groups now. And the fact that Republicans increased the tax burden on nonprofits, including those tied to religion, so they could shower money on corporations and the wealthy shows where their priorities lie.

At stake is a provision in the $1.5 trillion Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 that directed nonprofits of all kinds — houses of worship, but also, for example, universities, museums and orchestras — to pay a 21 percent tax on certain fringe benefits for their employees, such as parking and meals.

The new levy on the "armies of compassion" former President George W. Bush liked to extoll would raise an estimated $1.7 billion over a decade.

That's a vanishingly small amount in the scheme of the GOP's deficit-inflating tax extravaganza, but it's revealing. To lower the price tag of their confection for the wealthy, Republicans effectively hiked taxes on all sorts of other people and entities — most controversially, by sharply curtailing deductibility of state and local taxes. This was another two-faced move from a party that regularly assails "unfunded federal mandates" and lauds the importance of state and local problem-solving.

GOP leaders have told representatives of religious organizations that they had no intention of taxing them. They were focused on what they saw as liberal bastions in the third sector: universities, foundations and the like.

The religion tax, as one might call it, is a nightmare for many houses of worship, particularly smaller ones.

Republicans have relished attacking Democrats as secularist foes of religion and religious people. You'd thus think they might put a little care into how their legislation might affect religious groups. They didn't. As Nathan Diament, public policy director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations noted, the parking and meals tax "breaches a longstanding principle that we protect our houses of worship from state entanglement in their operations."

In the final weeks of unified GOP control of Congress, Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, the outgoing Ways and Means Committee chairman, had hoped to pass a substantial new tax bill. After some reluctance he added a provision ending the religion tax.

But in an interview, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons said that the only tax legislation with any chance of getting enough Democratic support to pass the Senate would involve a small number of bipartisan measures, including, he hopes, scrapping the not-for-profit tax. Bigger fixes to the GOP's tax monster will have to wait. And delays in the congressional calendar because of George H.W. Bush's funeral might doom tax legislation altogether.

If this Congress fails to act, House Democrats should make repeal an early priority. It would be illuminating to hear Republicans respond to Democratic speeches praising religious congregations and their indispensable work on behalf of charity and justice.

Washington Post Writers Group

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