Like that song that brings you back to distant memories, Republican arguments for the current tax bill, which robs Long Islanders of the full value of tax and mortgage interest deductions, have returned me to the refrain I’d heard for 16 years in Washington. In congressional offices, in the Members Dining Room, on the House Floor, it went something like this: “Why should my constituents subsidize your rich constituents?”
I’d respond by asking my colleagues why my constituents should help fund $20 billion a year in crop subsidies, much of it going to millionaire farmers? Why is it OK to subsidize an agricultural conglomerate in Iowa but not a mortgage for a modest home in Islip?
“Free markets should establish housing purchases, not tax write-offs,” they’d argue. Then they’d vote for $40 billion in tax breaks and subsidies for the richest oil and gas companies on Earth.
They’d say: “I’ve been to Long Island, and those people in the Hamptons don’t need the deductions.”
I’d describe not what’s far beyond Exit 72 on the Long Island Expressway, but what it’s like along all the exits before it. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, the average weekly wage in Nassau County is $1,220 and in Suffolk, $1,147. When you compare that to the national average, which is $1,067 a week, and take into account Long Island’s high cost of living, it’s easy to see that a dollar in Huntington, New York, doesn’t go nearly as far as it does in Huntington, West Virginia.
When I was in Congress, I did an analysis comparing the effects of the federal tax code on three typical middle-class families — one from Hicksville, New York, and others from Akron, Ohio, from McAllen, Texas. The numbers showed conclusively that New Yorkers pay more in federal taxes because the federal tax code doesn’t account for differences in wages and costs of living across different regions. The Council for Community and Economic Research found that for consumer goods and services, a Long Island family pays 34 percent more than the national average. Even a Quarter-Pounder at McDonald’s costs $1 more in Nassau County than it does in McAllen.
Often, I’d bring my colleagues to Long Island to let them see for themselves. I took an Oregon congressman through Wyandanch; a California congressman through Huntington Station; a Georgia Republican to Cold Spring Harbor (OK, maybe that backfired). Their images of Long Island as one massive Hampton hedgerow were shattered. They saw that far from being a Gold Coast community raiding the federal treasury, Long Island taxpayers have been gypped by the federal government. Now we’ve been mugged by this tax bill.
It’s not just a cudgel to Long Islanders; it’s a masterpiece of hypocrisy by President Donald Trump and my former colleagues.
The so-called “deficit hawks” have become tax-cut slobbering lapdogs, willing to add a net-trillion dollars to the deficit knowing that every objective, nonpartisan analysis concludes that the money will not be paid for by a better economy, but by our poorer children.
Still, I’m not surprised by the hypocrisy. These are many of the same members of Congress who refused to support disaster aid for Superstorm Sandy, but demanded it instantly for the hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and floods that ravaged their communities.
What does surprise me — shocks me, even — is the relative ease with which this has occurred. In less than a few months — with breathtaking speed and literally handscrawled legislative language — the Trump administration and the Republican majority have fundamentally effectuated one of the largest transfers of wealth away from Long Island and reshaped our economic terrain. For my 16 years in Congress, we always anticipated a few voices in the wilderness wanting to go after SALT and mortgage deductions. We scoffed at the threat, knowing that it would be futile.
Until now, in an age where any damage seems possible; when we have become so numb to the dizzying pace of events in Washington that we don’t realize the damage until it’s too late.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill: Never has so much damage been inflicted on so many by so few: President Trump and every member of the House and Senate who supports a bill based on their craven hypocrisy and willful negligence toward Long Island taxpayers.
Steve Israel is a former Democratic congressman from Huntington.