Republicans rallied to GOP Sen. Bob Corker’s defense early this week, rejecting a report that the Tennessee lawmaker stealthily tucked a provision into the massive tax package to benefit himself financially and then reversed course to back the bill.
Democrats were unrelenting as they howled about the “Corker kickback” and argued the tax benefit for real estate developers boosts the wealthy — President Donald Trump, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Corker among them — at the expense of average Americans.
Wyoming U.S. Sen. John Barrasso was listed as one of 14 Republican senators who could benefit from the real estate provision by International Business Times, an online publication that first reported on the change to the tax bill.
Barrasso is part of two real estate partnerships related to local medical firms and also owns a parcel of undeveloped land at the foot of Casper Mountain valued between $100,000 and $250,000, according to his financial disclosure forms filed last spring.
But the land generates no income and spokeswoman Laura Mengelkamp said that the real estate partnerships were 10-year buyout agreements that end this year.
“Sen. Barrasso will receive no income from those agreements in the future,” Mengelkamp wrote in an email.
House and Senate negotiators finalized the tax bill last week and included a version of the provision to benefit the real estate industry in the form of pass-through companies, which are businesses in which the profits double as the owners’ personal income.
These types of companies can reduce their taxable income by 20 percent, but the Senate bill had only permitted them to do so if they paid wages to workers. The final bill enables the deduction for owners of certain kinds of property as well, a tax break that would presumably help Trump, Kushner and other officials and policymakers with real estate holdings.
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, was on the committee that sought to reconcile the Senate and House versions of the bill. Spokesman Max D’Onofrio did not say whether Enzi supported the real estate provision but noted that determining how to tax pass-through companies is difficult.
“There has been a lot of debate over the years about how to fairly tax these companies, and the House and Senate had different approaches,” D’Onofrio said in an email. “During the conference committee ... they negotiated those approaches and came to an agreement that the members think would benefit small businesses across the country.”
D’Onofrio added that 60 percent of workers in Wyoming are employed by pass-through companies.
Mengelkamp said that the real estate provision was not in the version of the Senate bill that Barrasso voted for earlier this month and that Barrasso had no input on it because he was not part of the committee that sought to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill. Barrasso is the fourth-ranking Senate Republican.
Hatch speaks out
In a letter on Monday, the GOP chairman of the Senate Finance Committee said that he — not Corker — was the author of the provision and that it was hardly a brand-new creation dropped into the final version of the bill. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, outlined the legislative path for the provision, starting with its unveiling Nov. 2 by his House counterpart, Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas.
Calling himself “disgusted,” Hatch said it was “categorically false” that the provision was “airdropped” into the bill and Corker was responsible.
“It takes a great deal of imagination — and likely no small amount of partisanship — to argue that a provision that has been public for over a month,” debated on the House floor and included in a House-passed bill “is somehow a covert and last-minute addition to the conference report,” Hatch said.
Corker said in a statement late Sunday that “he is not a member of the tax-writing committee and had no involvement in crafting the legislation.” Corker said he requested no specific tax provisions throughout the monthslong debate and had no knowledge of the real estate provision in question. He pressed Hatch for details on the process, prompting the chairman’s letter hours later.
Corker owns real estate and development companies. His estimated net worth was more than $69 million in 2015, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which analyzes campaign and financial data. Corker’s most recent financial disclosure form listed a building in Chattanooga, Tennessee, worth $5 million to $25 million.
He opposed the original Senate bill, complaining it would add to the nation’s debt and “deepen the debt burden on future generations.”
But Corker said Friday that while the final version of the bill negotiated by House and Senate Republicans “is far from perfect,” it represents “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make U.S. businesses domestically more productive and internationally more competitive.”
Barrasso stated in his disclosure form that he earned $19,625 from partnership distributions related to Wyoming Surgical Center.
One of those agreements is a real estate partnership, but the disclosure does not specify which of the two partnerships Barrasso’s income came from or whether it came from a combination of both. Mengelkamp did not answer questions about which partnership the income had come from.
The empty plot of land that Barrasso owns is not depreciable unless it is developed, according to the Internal Revenue Service standards, meaning that Barrasso would not be able to deduct any of its value under the tax bill provision.
Barrasso ranks around the top-fifth of all members of Congress with a net worth of $1.9 million, according to Congressional Quarterly’s annual ranking. Wyoming’s other U.S. Senator, Mike Enzi, sits almost exactly in the middle with a net worth of $390,000.
Wyoming’s lone U.S. House Rep. Liz Cheney, who was elected last year, is not yet ranked by CQ but she disclosed assets of between $2.75 million and $8.8 million in her most recent financial disclosure form.
Members of Congress earn $174,000 per year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report