U.S. Senator Marco Rubio built upon his reputation as one of the Republican Party’s top thinkers on Wednesday, as the potential presidential candidate outlined a plan to rewrite the U.S. tax code to include new breaks for families and lower rates on business income. But parents and job creators might not want to adjust their budgets quite yet.
The plan, written with fellow Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah, appears more likely to be given airtime in Rubio’s stump speeches than in congressional committees that oversee tax law. That’s because while Rubio and Lee presented the plan with charts, bullet points and color photos, its debut contained no actual legislation needed to change current law.
The tax plan is one of several examples of Rubio presenting new ideas without actually writing his proposals into bills, an approach more in line with policy think tanks than Senate offices. At the Capitol Hill press conference, he swatted away repeated questions about the lack of legislation, saying that his goal was to present a "first step" in addressing tax reform. He invited lawmakers to offer their own suggestions, adding that his proposal included more detail "than a lot of people running around this building talking about the need to do tax reform."
"Guys, I don't know any other way to explain to people what you stand for unless you tell them," Rubio told reporters. "I mean, I've tried to govern myself in my entire time in public service by being specific about ideas."
But the bulk of questions from reporters on the tax plan centered less on Rubio's philosophy than the senator's strategy to see it signed into law. The back-and-forth with the media underscored how Rubio's positioning as the policy wonk among potential presidential candidates can be both a strength and a weakness.
On one hand, the first-term senator has shown himself to be among his chamber's most ambitious intellectuals at a time when Republicans, in charge of Congress for the first time in almost a decade, are trying to rebrand themselves as a party of ideas. At the same time, Rubio has yet to shepherd a major, sweeping piece of legislation from his own desk to the president's. That inability may prove a liability when it comes time to convince voters that he can overcome the partisan gridlock plaguing Washington and get things done. It also underscores perhaps the biggest question facing Rubio's would-be presidential campaign: Is he ready to be president?
Rubio himself used the very same points to criticize President Barack Obama. As one of the most aggressive and active surrogates for 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Rubio spent much of that campaign characterizing Obama as a failure by pointing to the “enormous gap between the president’s words and his actual achievements.” "This is someone who has run the country, not very well over the last three years, that has no experience beyond doing that," Rubio said in 2012. "He has no experience with the private sector or the free enterprise system."
Rubio will have to lay similar doubts to rest if he decides to mount a White House run. He, like Obama, would be launching a national campaign without yet completing his first term in the Senate. Similarly, Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas are also first-term Republicans who may run for president.
"He'll have to show he's got the experience," Steve Duprey, the Republican national committeeman from New Hampshire, said in a recent interview about Rubio, who published a book earlier this year that compiled his policy proposals.
Duprey added that Rubio was a gifted speaker who should be able to make his case to voters. "This is the most wide-open field since 1972," Duprey said. "And he's talking about the right issues."
The issue Rubio is most well-known for is immigration. He co-authored an overhaul of the nation's border policy that won bipartisan backing in the Senate. But Rubio abandoned the bill after his poll numbers suffered among Republican voters and his party's leaders refused to give the legislation a hearing in the House.
Some of Rubio's other acclaimed ideas also have no chance of becoming law, but for a different reason: They've never been introduced as bills.
It's been more than a year since Rubio marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's declaration of war on poverty by delivered a speech saying he was "developing legislation" to create wage-enhancements for low-income workers. That bill has yet to be introduced.
In another a speech last year, Rubio repeatedly referred to the "retirement crisis" in America, and said Congress should address it by increasing the age to qualify for Social Security benefits—a bold position for a lawmaker representing the state with the highest percentage of senior citizens. It, too, hasn't been turned into a bill. An Obamacare alternative that Rubio was working on with Representative Paul Ryan, another leading "reform conservative" in Congress, hasn't been introduced.
But Rubio's legislative record does include successes. He was an outspoken proponent of targeted sanctions on Venezuela and an overhaul of the Veterans Affairs administration, both of which became law. A spending measure passed last year included a version of Rubio's plan to end "Obamacare bailouts," his legislation aimed at abolishing provisions meant to protect insurers from big losses if they draw a costlier applicant pool than anticipated. A bill he co-authored a bill with Democratic Senator Mark Warner to determine federal student loan repayments based on a borrower's income has been applauded from both sides of the aisle, although it hasn't been passed.
Rubio rightly notes that he's made himself vulnerable to political attacks—from the right or left—by staking out positions on economic and foreign policy. And he's not been helped by timing in which he arrived in Washington: The two legislative sessions he's been a part of in Congress have been among the least productive on record. And this year, his fifth in the Senate, is the first time his party has controlled the majority since he was elected in 2010.
But Rubio's failure to codify his most sweeping changes isn't new. When he was Florida House speaker, Rubio published an ambitions agenda of 100 ideas, about one-fourth of which passed both Republican-controlled chambers. Yet the "boldest reform" in the package, as Rubio has described it, was an overhaul of property taxes that he failed to convince Republicans in the Senate to approve.
On Wednesday, Rubio and Lee, both 43 and among the youngest members of the Senate, declined to set a timetable as to when their plan would find its way into actual legislation.
The proposal would reduce marginal tax rates, let businesses write off investments immediately and create a $2,500 tax credit for children. It would cap individual tax rates at 35 percent and eliminate taxes on capital gains and dividends for corporate shareholders. The cuts would increase the U.S. deficit, complicating Rubio’s efforts to meet a goal of balancing the federal budget that he reiterated Wednesday.
The senator said economic growth generated by the tax plan would cover at least some of the costs and that he would pair it with changes to Medicare and Social Security.
"I've learned during my time in public office, both as speaker of the Florida House and in the U.S. Senate that the best public policy is the policy that takes input from a broad array of individuals that would be impacted by it," Rubio said. "We want to continue to seek that input."
Richard Rubin contributed to this report.