While President Donald Trump’s incendiary tweets and unorthodox behavior dominates headlines, well-heeled conservative groups and lobbyists are trying to focus their energy elsewhere, spending significant resources to push through what could be the most important legislative goal of Trump’s first year: Tax reform.
The network of conservative groups assembled by billionaire donors Charles and David Koch are executing a major initiative to pressure lawmakers to overhaul the tax code, a goal that has eluded congressional leaders for decades. The Koch-backed groups did not openly support Trump’s candidacy for president – Charles Koch said last year that the choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton was like choosing between cancer and a heart attack. But now that a Republican is in the White House, the Koch’s sprawling network is aiming to take advantage of the GOP’s grip on Washington.
But the challenges to accomplishing a tax overhaul are many.
“It is a Herculean lift,” said Tim Phillips, president of the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity.
Furious after the Republican-held Congress failed to repeal former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, leaders of the Koch-backed groups mince no words when discussing how Republican voters and groups would respond if GOP leaders fall short of passing a tax overhaul bill as well.
“We’re not into drawing red lines and making threats. At a certain point, though, if you whiff on Obamacare repeal and if you whiff on tax reform, it’s bound to harm them,” Phillips said. “Republicans in Congress know that their failure in health care does raise the stakes on tax reform. There are no excuses any longer.”
Starting this summer, AFP held dozens of events in key states centered around the tax reform debate, and has pledged to spend tens of millions of dollars on the effort.
In July, the group hosted a forum with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short, who formerly led the Koch-backed Freedom Partners. AFP also sponsored a town hall with North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, who recently echoed AFP’s warning.
“Bottom line: if Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell can get the president’s agenda done, they can probably keep their jobs,” Meadows told The Hill newspaper. “If Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell can’t get the president’s agenda done, I don’t know that they get to keep theirs, nor do I know if I get to keep mine. We’ve got to deliver.”
The White House is pushing to move on tax reform this year. Congress must first address the debt ceiling and keep the government running past September.
But Republican House leaders earlier this summer released a blueprint for overhauling the tax code that called for lowering rates and implementing just three income tax brackets instead of seven. Congressional Democrats have said they are willing to work with Republicans on tax reform, but with strict stipulations, saying they wouldn’t support a plan that lowers taxes for the wealthy.
With Republicans controlling all three branches of government for the first time in more than a decade, the opportunity is ripe.
But conservative legislative goals, however, are often overshadowed by the president, whose ongoing controversial remarks or personality disputes with Republican party leaders could stall popular support. Word of Trump’s acrimonious relationship with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spilled into public view this week after the two men recently held a heated, profanity-laced phone conversation. McConnell released a statement Wednesday saying his is in “regular contact about our shared goals” with the president.
For the Koch-backed groups, staying out of Trump’s regular news cycle spats has been a challenge, but a top priority.
“Our job is to be cutting through all the noise and try not to get caught in this whole distraction, this whole circus that’s going on,” said Daniel Garza, president of the Libre Initiative, a group in the network that focuses on Latino voters. “We have deliberately tried to stay focused on policy, not personalities.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correctly identify Rep. Mark Meadows’ state.