The Trump tax cuts remain unpopular on the first Tax Day since they fully went into effect, thanks largely to the fact that many who received tax cuts don't realize they did.
Part of the disconnect can be attributed to attacks from Democrats. Another part of it can be chalked up to Republicans passing the tax overhaul in partisan fashion, rather than seeking the kind of bipartisan reform that passed in 1986. Part of it, too, can be attributed to Trump’s own struggling salesmanship and his relative unpopularity.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last week found that only 17% of respondents believed they would pay less in taxes due to the law, while 28% thought they would pay more (the majority didn’t know or thought their taxes would be the same).
In fact, about two-thirds of households received tax cuts in 2018, according to an estimate from the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank. Only 6% saw tax hikes.
But the perception that more Americans saw a tax increase than not persists.
“No one really knew if they were going to get a tax cut for the first year, year and a half that it was enacted,” said Liam Donovan, a tax lobbyist for Bracewell and former staffer for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “You already have some of this baked in because this is our second April 15 to come through. Just the sheer length of time from then through now makes the causal link harder."
Donovan noted that most individuals who received tax cuts got them on an incremental basis, withheld from their biweekly paychecks. Families didn't get a tangible sign of the tax cuts — there was no single big check in the mail — which likely made it hard for them to keep track of whether they benefited.
Meanwhile, Democrats have relentlessly attacked the law as only helping the wealthy or corporations, such as Trump and his business.
Reps. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., and Judy Chu, D-Calif., sought to underscore that point Monday, saying the congressional investigation into Trump’s own tax returns was necessary because the law may have been drafted to serve Trump's own interests.
“I want to know if the president is paying his fair share because I’m paying my fair share,” Pascrell said in a call with reporters. Pascrell's colleague, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., last week set a new deadline for the Treasury Department to cooperate with a request to review Trump’s returns.
Another way Democrats have helped inflate perceptions of the share of Americans who suffered tax increases is by highlighting the law's cap on deductions for state and local taxes paid, or SALT. The law's SALT cap especially pinched high earners in high-tax states.
Leading Democrats have also suggested that early indications that tax refunds were lower this year were a sign that the tax law didn't benefit typical families. While tax refunds were down just over 1% in both total and average amount per refund toward the end of the 2019 tax season, refunds only measure how much a person overpaid to the government through withheld wages during the course of the year, not whether they received a tax cut or not.
For his own part, Trump appeared in Burnsville, Minn., on Monday with a group of small business owners and employees to boast about the tax cuts. The White House and its allies want to combat Democratic attacks on the law by touting small business tax cuts in particular.
In characteristic fashion, Trump bounced from tax cuts, to tariffs, to the stock market, and North Korea and Israel. He cited low unemployment and rising retirement accounts.
Trump also swiped at Democrats: “Everything we’ve done can be undone and bad, bad things can happen.”
Democratic presidential candidates have floated proposals to undo the tax cuts. But Donovan, who saw political parallels between the dynamics of Obamacare and the GOP tax overhaul, thought that would be easier said than done.
“If and when Democrats try to unwind this it comes with a similar risk, in that people don’t like change but that works in both directions,” Donovan said. “Because it’s the devil that you don’t know and the tax system is as winding, and nearly as complex, as the health system.”