Pope’s Visit Dovetails With Long-Shot Push for Low-Income Tax Breaks

The president will meet with Pope Francis next week. (iStock)

Pope Francis will not likely use his Thursday address to Congress ask lawmakers to pass a set of niche American tax provisions called “extenders.” All the same, his message of combating poverty and inequality will hover over the tax debate, galvanizing Democrats to make permanent several tax breaks for low-income workers and families.

Their efforts will probably fall on deaf ears. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has made no move to include anti-poverty tax breaks in the small package of extenders that will likely see floor action in the coming weeks. He has, however, visited with Catholic nuns to discuss the issue.

Last Thursday, the House Ways and Means Committee passed permanent extensions for several business tax cuts on party-line votes, including investment write-offs and certain preferences for multinationals. Those generally noncontroversial provisions are set to expire at the end of the year.

The committee did not take action on other popular tax breaks for individuals — such as expansions to the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit — that are Democratic priorities, and tend to be included in Republican anti-poverty plans as well. While individual and family credits don’t expire until the end of 2017, Democrats criticized committee Republicans’ choice to make certain business tax cuts permanent while not taking action on similar cuts for low-income individuals and families.

“These refundable tax credits are of vital importance to tens of millions of middle-class American families,” said Rep. Sander Levin, the top Democrat on the committee, in an email to Morning Consult Tuesday. “While income and wealth inequality remain significant issues, House Republicans shouldn’t be pushing $1 trillion in unpaid-for corporate tax breaks while leaving behind hardworking American families.”

Democrats, as well as liberal policy groups and anti-poverty groups, aim to use Pope Francis’s visit to Washington this week to promote policies like the earned-income tax credit and the child tax credit.

“A lot of what the Pope has talked about is economic inequality, and some people getting very rich and others being left behind and living in poverty. The [earned-income tax credit] and [child tax credit] are among the most bipartisan anti-poverty solutions that we have,” said Harry Stein, director of fiscal policy at the Center for American Progress, in an interview Tuesday.

“These are things that are a huge deal for low-income families, they can be thousands of dollars of tax relief. That means paying bills, saving money, paying for a down payment, putting down a security deposit,” he said.

Ryan has long voiced his support for the earned-income tax credit as one of the most effective ways of combating poverty. In his 2014 anti-poverty blueprint “Expanding Opportunity in America,” he wrote that the credit was “one of the federal government’s most effective anti-poverty programs.”

Ryan, who is Catholic, met recently in his home district with the “Nuns on the Bus,” a group of Catholic clergywomen working on social justice issues that is sponsored by Network: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby.

“We had a great meeting with Paul Ryan in Wisconsin and he’s quite positive about making these credits permanent, and he relayed that he and President Obama would like to make these cuts permanent and expand the [earned-income tax credit],” said Laura Peralta-Schulte, a lobbyist for the organization, in an interview Tuesday.

Despite Ryan’s assurances, Peralta-Schulte expressed concern that the Ways and Means Committee had recently acted on business tax breaks without also considering low-income worker cuts. “They do need to move as a package. You can’t do something for Wall Street and not something for workers. We’re hopeful that there will be something that addresses these credits,” she said.

Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Ryan, said that there are no committee markups scheduled to make the earned-income tax credit and child tax credit expansions permanent. This lack of committee action worries some who believe that Republicans will not vote for the individual and family credits if they are not coupled with business tax cuts.

“Once you’re picking and choosing which things to make permanent, you should look at the whole tax code and see what makes sense and what doesn’t,” Stein said. “What I would be nervous about is that, with extenders, generally these packages move when everyone has something to vote for. If they act on the business ones and make them permanent, I’m not sure the political coalition will be there to make permanent the earned-income tax credit and child tax credit.”

Those two tax credits will not be the only economic items on Democrats’ wish list for the Pope’s visit. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) joined striking federal contract workers pushing for a $15 minimum wage on Tuesday, using Pope Francis’s words about an “economy of inclusion” as a rallying cry.

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