Republicans for weeks have said passing an overhaul of the tax code, thereby securing a major legislative victory, is imperative to their 2018 election efforts. Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam stands squarely at the center of that effort -- and could be imperiled by it.
As chairman of the tax policy subcommittee in the House, he’s playing a critical role in crafting the GOP tax legislation and shepherding it through the chamber – it passed the Ways and Means Committee on Thursday along party lines and is expected to be voted on by the full House this week.
Roskam is also at the center of the political debate over taxes as Democrats vilify the plan and Republicans search for a legislative victory to run on next year. Illinois’ 6th Congressional District sprawls across suburbs to the west and northwest of Chicago and represents the precise type of district Democrats view as key to taking back the House: It’s highly educated, with more than 50 percent of residents holding college degrees, and has a median household income of nearly $100,000 -- 40 percent higher than the national average.
Last year, Hillary Clinton carried the 6th over Donald Trump by seven percentage points and Roskam is one of 23 Republicans in districts she won. If Republicans pass their plan, Roskam’s home base will be a critical test for Democrats: Defeating an architect of the GOP plan in a district won by Clinton would likely mean Democrats can find success in similar districts across the country.
Republicans roundly dismiss Democratic hopes in the area. Roskam, who has represented IL-6 since 2007, won re-election last year with nearly 60 percent of the vote, and has won every re-election by double-digit margins. He’s a successful fundraiser and, unlike some other members in targeted districts, there is no wavering from Roskam on the tax bill.
“I’m going to run on this plan, undoubtedly,” he said in an interview following the committee passage of the bill. “I think that when it’s all evaluated in its totality, this is a winner for my district.”
American Action Network, an outside group aligned with Speaker Paul Ryan, has spent $18 million on the tax issue, and its ads have run in Roskam’s district. Business Roundtable, a pro-tax-reform group, ran an ad last week featuring a company just outside the district (the person in the ad is a constituent, Roskam said).
But Democrats there are energized and expect to rally support against the measure. A variety of grassroots organizations have popped up to protest Roskam and lay the groundwork for a campaign against him, many falling under the umbrella group Coalition for a Better Illinois 6th. On Friday, protesters gathered outside the congressman’s district office, handing out postcards to deliver to him listing reasons to oppose the bill -- a play on the GOP’s promise to simplify the tax code so anyone can file their return on a postcard-size form. This Thursday, protesters will rally outside a local Republican organization where Roskam is headlining its annual Reagan Day Dinner.
“I think it’s the strongest argument against Peter Roskam that we’re going to have,” said Reid McCollum, one of the coalition leaders. “There’s no getting around the fact that that’s going to be a major issue in the campaign.”
Bob Grogan, leader of the local group hosting Roskam at the dinner, said Democrats are wasting their time attacking him on taxes.
“There’s always winners and losers, but on balance, if it’s a success and it gets passed, I think it’s a feather in Peter’s cap,” Grogan said. For Roskam and other Republicans to be able to run on the plan, however, they will first have to successfully guide the bill to passage. Some House Republicans have already balked, mainly because of a provision rolling back the deduction for state and local taxes. There are also significant differences between the House bill and the version the Senate released Thursday, including one in the Senate that would entirely eliminate the state and local deduction, while the House kept it for property taxes up to $10,000.
Republicans on Ways and Means praise Roskam’s knowledge of the plan’s intricate details and his ability to sell it to other members. He’ll play a pivotal role this week as they try to win over members not on the committee who are less steeped in details.
“He’s got the rare package of a policy maker, legislator, who’s really good on policy and really gets into it, understands it, but he also can communicate it really well and he understands how the politics and the policy intersect,” said Rep. Pat Tiberi, a senior member of the committee.
The debate in the district mirrors the one happening on Capitol Hill and around the country: Who gets a tax cut under this plan, and will anyone actually see a tax increase? A Tax Policy Center analysis found that the plan would reduce taxes on average for all income brackets. But the Joint Committee on Taxation found that 8.3 percent of taxpayers would see a tax increase in 2019, and that while increases would mainly hit the wealthiest, some middle-class earners could see a tax hike too.
In Roskam’s district, the Ways and Means Committee predicted that a family of four making $135,435 -- the median income there -- would see a $5,053 tax cut. Democrats, however, dispute that the district would be a winner. Sen. Dick Durbin held an event there last week and issued a press release saying 51 percent of taxpayers in the district would see an increase because of the changes to state and local deductions.
That issue is a unique factor in Illinois because voters recently saw massive state income tax increases across the board. To break a budget standoff, this summer 10 Republicans in the state legislature joined Democrats to override a veto from Gov. Bruce Rauner to pass a budget that increased the income tax from 3.75 percent to 4.95 percent.
Steve Andersson, a state representative whose district overlaps significantly with Roskam’s, was one of the Republicans who voted to override the veto, which cost him his position as the party’s floor leader. He ultimately decided not to seek re-election next year. But Andersson said his constituents -- and Roskam’s -- could be hurt by the House GOP plan.
“Our voters are not necessarily going to benefit from this,” he told RCP. “With every vote you take, vote the district. I think it’s going to be an interesting conundrum for Peter.”
Roskam has vigorously criticized the state income tax increase, voicing his displeasure with it, and with Illinois critics of his plan, during the committee markup this week. He told RCP his critics should “spare me the crocodile tears.” Roskam said he initially had a jarring reaction to the idea of eliminating state and local deductions -- 38 percent of tax units in his district took the deduction in 2015, with an average deduction of $14,830. But he maintained that the plan should be evaluated in totality.
“Most people in my district say I’m interested in tax relief,” Roskam said. “They’re less interested in equations than they are in the bottom line.”
His Democratic opponents have highlighted health care as the biggest issue in the race next year, but they are also ready to run against the tax plan. Amanda Howland, who lost to Roskam last year but is running again, said he “threw us under the bus” in drafting the bill.
Sean Casten, another Democratic candidate, said: “The only thing I can conclude is he’s doing what his donors want him to do and not what his constituents want him to do.”
“This is a whammy for them,” a third candidate, Kelly Mazeski, said of Roskam’s voters. “This is truly going to kick them in the pocketbooks.”
Ten Democrats in all have lined up to run in the primary next March, and no frontrunner has yet emerged. Howland likely benefits from the name ID of having run last year, while Mazeski leads the pack with $343,000 in the bank, including a $195,000 loan; Casten follows with $169,000 (Roskam has $1.35 million).
The national party has yet to pick sides in the primary, but one Democratic House operative said Roskam’s district represents the type of race that would be winnable with the right candidate, but could easily fall off the board if a lackluster one emerges from the crowded primary field.
Still, the early March election gives the winner months to raise money and run a general election campaign against the incumbent. And Democrats are convinced that if the House Republican bill passes, they’ll be able to rally support against it. Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky, whose district borders Roskam’s, said her colleague associated himself with the bill “at his peril.”
“This is a bad idea. It’s a bad bill and I think it’s bad politics for Peter Roskam,” Schakowsky said.