The tax bill provides a great opportunity to help legislative novices understand a rule of thumb of Member voting psychology.

It’s fairly easy to vote against a bill because of something bad the bill does. It’s much harder to vote against a bill because of something good the bill leaves out.

“Bad” and “good” depend, of course, on your perspective and your values.

In the case of the tax bill, for conservative opponents that means it’s probably effective to attack the ethanol tax credit and tariff or other targeted tax extenders that cannot withstand a bright spotlight. Liberal opponents have it easier because they hate two things in the bill: the rate extensions for the top two brackets and the estate tax deal.

While I think it’s a substantively valid conservative critique that the bill “only” extends current law tax rates for two years, when it “should” be permanent, I don’t think that’s likely to sway many (any?) votes. That doesn’t mean that Members voting against the bill won’t cite this argument, but instead that this argument is in most cases unlikely to be substantively dispositive.

Please note:

  • I’m trying to make a general point about how Members often think about their vote, not just a specific one about this bill.
  • This point is specific to Members of Congress. It has nothing to do with anyone who doesn’t actually vote on a bill, including outside commentators.
  • I’m trying to explain how Members do vote, not how I think they should vote.
  • I’m not worried about flagging which opposing arguments to the tax bill are most effective because this train is steaming down the tracks. Cloture was invoked yesterday 83-15.

If my rule of thumb is right, it means there’s a subtle difference in the effectiveness of the following arguments:

  • “This bill is bad because it doesn’t include spending cuts to offset the unemployment insurance spending.”
  • “This bill is bad because it increases the deficit as a result of the unemployment insurance spending.”

The second argument is likely to be more effective at swaying a Member against the bill than the first. Members might oppose the bill because it increases the deficit, rather than because it excludes spending cuts.

I think this is a fairly reliable rule of thumb. I find it useful in many legislative contexts and hope you will too.

(photo credit: shellygrrl)