Self-Deal or No Deal: The Conflicts of Interest in Congress That Makes a Bad Deal for America

When ProPublica released its latest bombshell on the ultra-wealthy’s influence on the 2017 Trump tax cuts, it evoked a familiar response — stunning, but not surprising. The granular detail provided in the report is remarkable. The fact that wealthy Wisconsin families that contributed to Senate campaigns for Ron Johnson benefitted greatly from provisions the senator championed should surprise no one.

Also unsurprising is the common refrain from the beneficiaries of these tax giveaways: they’re just following the tax laws as written. What companies like Enterprise Products Partners — who trotted out the line in response to ProPublica’s latest — always fail to mention is the hand they have in writing these laws.

After the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy published its report revealing 55 of America’s largest corporations paid nothing in federal income taxes for 2020, Public Citizen detailed how these 55 corporations spent nearly $450 million in lobbying and campaign contributions going back to the 2016 elections.

These deep-pocketed corporations surely played a role in shaping the corporate provisions in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Reducing the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, allowing companies to write off the costs of investments in equipment more quickly than the equipment wears out and loses value, and repeal of the corporate alternative minimum tax are among the items granted from the corporate wish list. But, as Sen. Ron Johnson noted in his response to the ProPublica story, more than 90 percent of businesses are pass-through entities that do benefit from the corporate tax giveaways, and he for one would not let them miss out on the tax-break party.

This corrosive self-dealing expands beyond just tax policy that benefits corporations and the ultra-wealthy who operate their businesses as pass-throughs. Sen. Rand Paul recently revealed that three weeks before COVID was declared a pandemic and there were just 14 confirmed cases in the United States, his wife bought shares of Gilead, the maker of the COVID treatment remdesivir. This comes months after former Georgia Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, among others, faced questions involving suspicious stock trading activity as the pandemic exploded across the globe.

The idea that the median member of a Congress, whether a Republican or Democrat, is a millionaire alone is not an indictment on the body. After all, it is Franklin Roosevelt that became the subject H.W. Brand’s Traitor to His Class, detailing how a man of great wealth and privilege ushered in the most sweeping set of social policies this country had ever seen to assist those born without the same privilege. But as some elected officials place their own and their biggest donors’ interests ahead of the public they pledge to serve, it makes it clear that we need federal policies that minimize the self-dealing of politicians to secure a better deal for the people.