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Marco Rubio Made the Republican Tax Bill Slightly Better for the Working Poor. It’s Still a Regressive Boondoggle.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 26:  Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) (2nd L) is flanked by plain-clothed U.S. Capitol Police as he arrives for a classified hearing at the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill October 26, 2017 in Washington, DC. The committee advanced legislation that would reauthorize Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which enables the government to collect foreign intelligence on U.S. soil.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Good job, good effort?
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For the last several days, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has been fuming about the Republican tax bill, arguing that it did not do enough to help working-class families. On Thursday, he threatened to vote against the legislation unless colleagues finally met some of his demands.

Rubio is not exactly known for his titanium backbone, and pretty soon it seemed as if all of political Twitter had started a countdown until he caved. Friday afternoon, he appeared to do just that, announcing he would vote yes after finally winning a few concessions.

But while it’s easy to mock the man for accepting one-fourth of a stale loaf, his efforts have made the GOP’s bill marginally better for lower-income mothers and fathers.

Along with Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, Rubio spent several weeks lobbying for changes to the child tax credit that would make it more valuable to families with modest means. Today, the credit lets families subtract $1,000 from their IRS bill for each of their children. It’s also “refundable,” which a Washington term of art meaning that parents can claim the credit as a cash payment from the government, even if they don’t owe any federal income tax. As a result, the credit doubles as both a straightforward tax break, and a social welfare program buried in the tax code.

The problem is that, as it’s structured now, the child tax credit isn’t worth much to the poorest of the working poor. In order to claim any of it, a parent needs to make at least $3,000. Then, for each dollar a family earns over that threshold, they can get 15 cents back from the government as a refund. To get get the full $1,000 credit for one kid, you need more than $9,000 in earnings.

Expanding the child tax credit, and making it more of it refundable, has long been a central plank of the small but vocal reform-conservative movement that Rubio and Lee represent in the Senate, which wants to push the Republican party in a more family-friendly direction. Unfortunately for them, traditional supply-side conservatives, like the writers of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, have been cold on the idea, in part because they’d prefer to spend money on corporate tax cuts, and in part because they don’t like social welfare programs for the poor (even when they’re embedded in the tax code). When Rubio and Lee introduced an amendment late last month vastly expanding the refundable portion of the child tax credit, their colleagues shot it down.

But by threatening to torpedo the whole bill this week, Rubio finally managed to secure changes that will be worth several hundred dollars to many lower-income families. It’s not a lot in the scheme of a $1.5 trillion bill, but it’s something.

Here’s how the math works out. The Senate bill would have bumped the entire value of the child tax credit to $2,000 and dropped the income threshold to $2,500. But it increased the refundable portion by a mere $100, to $1,100.

By protesting, Rubio convinced his colleagues to do a little better. The refundable portion is now worth $1,400. To pay for the change, Republicans undid a tweak that would have let 17-year-old children qualify for the credit, up from age 16.

For a single mother supporting a child on a $12,000 income, that change means an extra $300 per year—or a little more than you could make in typical a week at a minimum wage job. For a single mother with two kids earning $24,000, it would mean an extra $600.

This is less than Rubio and Lee sought in their original amendment. That would have let parents claim the refund starting with the first dollar they earned, giving more aid to the absolute poorest parents. It would have also indexed the child tax credit to inflation, which the tax bill does not. The fact that they had to eliminate the credit for 17-year-olds in order to expand the refundable portion of the credit also speaks to just how unwilling Republicans were to redirect any money from business tax cuts to this cause, as well as to the minimal influence family-friendly conservatism seems to have as political philosophy.

Meanwhile, one could argue that Rubio is simply spraying perfume on a dung heap of a bill, giving the regressive boondoggle aimed at enriching corporate shareholders and wealthy business owners a faint whiff of working-class friendliness. But, hey, if he was always going to cave and vote for the bill, at least he managed to eek out a few improvements. Way to stand strong.

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