Comment: The senator who can win child tax credit Biden wants

It’s not Joe Manchin (though he supports it); it’s Utah’s Mitt Romney and his Family Security Act.

By Karl W. Smith / Bloomberg Opinion

The success or failure of President Biden’s legislative agenda could depend on a single senator from a mountainous state who has idiosyncratic views and is not especially popular in his own party.

That’s right: Biden’s future may lie in the hands of Mitt Romney. The Utah senator introduced a bill last February that would take a key component of the president’s social policy — the child tax credit, which was part of this year’s American Rescue Plan and would be extended by the moribund Build Back Better legislation — permanent.

The president should enthusiastically support Romney’s bill. Yes, this would require a level of boldness uncharacteristic of this White House, and passage would still be a long shot. But it just might work. Call it the audacity of the last best hope.

Since the beginning of the year, it has been clear that Sen. Joe Manchin was one of the key votes (if not the key vote) in passing Build Back Better. Yet even now the latest version of the bill is at odds not just with his stated legislative goals, but with his fundamental philosophy.

Manchin wants a streamlined bill focused on giving a hand up to the most vulnerable; without discouraging work, driving up inflation or adding to the deficit. Build Back Better is packed full of gimmicks designed to win validation from the Congressional Budget Office, devotes hundreds of billions to reinstating tax loopholes for upper-income Americans, and provides no permanent funding for its hodgepodge of programs nominally designed to help the poor but structured to serve long-term Democratic constituencies.

Fortunately, however, there is a bill that fits Manchin’s requirements. It also expands and permanently funds the primary poverty reduction initiative in Build Back Better. Romney’s Family Security Act, in a rare feat in today’s hyperpartisan environment, has won accolades from across the political spectrum.

It accomplishes this by integrating competing visions from the very start. It offers child allowance benefits to expecting parents four months before their child is due, for example; managing to be both pro-life and pro-choice. It both offers government support for the unborn and expands the options available to working single mothers.

In addition, by tying benefits directly to children through the Social Security Administration — rather than to taxpayers through the Internal Revenue Service — the plan supports both one-income families with a dedicated stay-at-home parent and families on the margins of the economy, striving to make ends meet.

Romney’s plan would also would provide a flat, universal benefit to all families. That’s different from the current structure of the child tax credit, which is a classic trapezoid with both a phase-in (designed to encourage work) and a phase-out (designed to add progressivity). To allay liberal concerns about progressivity and conservative worries about disincentives, Romney’s proposal would reform the earned income tax credit, which would become a pure subsidy for lower-income workers regardless of how many dependents they claim.

Romney would pay for these reforms largely by ending both the state and local deduction and the Temporary Aid to Needy Families program, the successor to what used to be known as welfare. Both of these programs — one for the rich, one for the poor — sound good on paper but in practice are simultaneously inefficient (economically) and ineffective (policywise).

Unlike those programs, a universal child benefit wouldn’t discourage poor parents from working for fear of losing their benefits. Nor would it encourage affluent parents to move to more economically segregated municipalities in order to maximize their deductions.

This integration of alternative values — rather than the pursuit of an ideological extreme or the construction of a centrism equally unsatisfying to all parties — is why Romney’s plan has such wide support in the policy community.

As 2021 comes to a close, the president is facing crises on multiple fronts: a resurgent virus, persistent inflation, a fractious party, to name just a few. Granted, embracing the idea of a Republican senator won’t solve any of these directly. But it’s a genuinely good idea. And if the two sides are ever going to work together, which is something Biden has promised to try to do, then they need to focus more on good-faith efforts such as Romney’s Family Security Act.

Karl W. Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was formerly vice president for federal policy at the Tax Foundation and assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina. He is also co-founder of the economics blog Modeled Behavior.

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