As L.A. burns, Republicans vote for a tax hike on the victims

What a perfectly-timed way to pay for tax cuts for the rich: Raising taxes on victims of natural disasters

Published December 8, 2017 8:00AM (EST)

Firefighters battle a wildfire in Santa Paula, California, December 5, 2017 (Getty/Ringo Chiu)
Firefighters battle a wildfire in Santa Paula, California, December 5, 2017 (Getty/Ringo Chiu)

By now you’ve probably seen the apocalyptic photographs of what looks to be red-hot liquid magma rolling down a volcano toward the Sepulveda pass along the Interstate 405 freeway in Los Angeles. In actuality, it's just one portion of the firestorms that are currently destroying tens of thousands of acres of land and property throughout Southern California.

It’s the second time in several months in which wildfires have devastated residential areas of the state. I personally survived the fires a few hundred miles to the north back in October, in which entire neighborhoods were leveled as if atomic bombs had been detonated in the middle of them. In the Santa Rosa metroplex alone, 40 minutes north of San Francisco, 8,400 homes were burned to the ground. We’re talking about low-income housing, such as the Journey’s End mobile home park for seniors, as well as wealthier neighborhoods in the Mark West and Fountaingrove areas. A staggering 43 people were killed in Sonoma and Napa, 22 in what was known as the “Tubbs Fire” alone -- the latter generated the third-highest death toll of any wildfire in California history.

Now the same epic tragedy is unfolding right in the middle of the West Coast's biggest population center. As I discovered firsthand in October, these are almost completely random events in which fire is carried by gusty winds, sometimes at the astonishing speed of 230 feet per second. Still, we can’t help but consider the impact of the climate crisis and the way worsening drought conditions have set the table for fires like these to start and spread. Inaction and stubborn ignorance among members of Congress, especially Republicans, Party has exacerbated these conditions, allowing for increasingly destructive weather events throughout the nation and the world.

It turns out, the congressional Republicans are making matters even worse for the victims of these wildfires in Los Angeles and others yet to occur, as well as victims of earthquakes and other acts of God.

According to the Los Angeles Times, contained within the horrendous Republican tax bill is a literal tax hike on people whose property is destroyed or damaged by “natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes." This will also affect "losses from fires, accidents, thefts or vandalism.” It turns out the Republicans decided to help pay for their tax cuts for the super-wealthy by eliminating the “casualty loss” tax deduction for victims of these natural disasters. An exemption in the law apparently excludes the victims of the Northern California fires I lived through. Victims of the fires happening right now in L.A. will not be exempted, however, at least according to the current iteration of the law. Rep. Mike Thompson, a Northern California Democrat, has described this tax hike as “cruel” and “heartless.”

Additionally, a law passed back in September provided a tax deduction for victims of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Future hurricane victims will, of course, be slammed by the Trump tax bill and the casualty repeal.

Nevertheless, the very fact that Republicans thought it would be an excellent idea to raise taxes on victims of natural disasters is astonishingly tone-deaf and downright vindictive. But unlike other actions by President Trump that appear to be deliberately aimed at punishing his opponents, this time Republicans aren't just sticking it to poor and middle class families. They’re also punishing red-state voters as well.

In states like Oklahoma and Pennsylvania where natural gas fracking is apparently triggering earthquake clusters, people in low-income, largely white rural areas will be hard hit if they've suffered losses at the hands of the fossil fuel industry, tornadoes or dust storms. Wealthy Republicans and middle-class Democrats alike will be nailed by the bill. All of this on top of the other tax increases for middle and working-class Americans earning less than $75,000.

In other words, if the Republicans thought they’d be punishing Hillary Clinton supporters alone, they’re desperately wrong. Hell, NewsCorp chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch’s multi-million-dollar winery was blitzed by the Skirball Fire in L.A. yesterday. It’s impossible to know the true motivation of such a ridiculous piece of legislation, and the elimination of the casualty deduction is especially confounding.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear the Republicans were trying to kill their own tax bill. What other conclusion can we draw from such a chaotic and disjointed legislative process, in which the GOP caucus is pushing a bill that’s supported by only 29 percent of voters, and which appears to have been scribbled on toilet paper in the middle of the night? While we’re here, it’s worth noting that none of the major pieces of legislation being force-fed through Congress has been supported by a plurality of voters. The various Obamacare repeal bills were only supported by around 15 percent of voters. It looks like the Republicans are legislating for anyone but real-life Americans. At some point, we should probably ask whether this bungled and botched process is a deliberate act of self-sabotage.

Ultimately, House Republicans ought to be held responsible for this disastrous casualty loss amendment. For that to have any impact, though, it would need to come from Republican voters and activists,  who (in theory) are opposed to tax hikes. Yet here it is -- and the timing couldn’t be worse as the world crashes and burns around us, literally for many people in L.A. and figuratively in the form of what I’ve been calling the “Trump Crisis.” Every day this regime is in power, it’s causing more damage to the American system -- damage that’s spreading into the tax code and the wallets of Republicans and Democrats alike.

By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.