If the Republican tax plan that cleared the Senate in the dead of night this weekend is signed by the President, expect plenty of images like this in Democrats’ 2018 campaign ads:
— Senator Dick Durbin (@SenatorDurbin) December 1, 2017
What you see above is indeed a hand-written change to U.S. tax law, scribbled hastily in the margins hours before the vote. (There are one or two words at the bottom of the page that are genuinely difficult to make out—amazingly, somebody found a way to make the tax code even more incomprehensible.) It’s a particularly vivid, straightforward demonstration of the GOP’s desperate rush to deliver massive tax cuts to the rich before public opposition could organize—indeed, before the wide-ranging consequences of the bill could even be analyzed. Conservatives are surely pleased that the strategy seems to have worked, and if this reaction from Forbes’s Avik Roy is any indication, they’re not losing sleep over the process:
The Declaration of Independence was handwritten. Somehow we managed ok. https://t.co/AHupSqQuxn
— Avik Roy (@Avik) December 2, 2017
For the sake of constructive engagement, let’s ponder this argument for a moment. As Roy notes, the Declaration was handwritten: In fact, the familiar document featuring John Hancock’s oversized signature, which was mostly signed about a month after the text was approved, was inscribed on vellum (made from calfskin)—apparently because the signers believed that mode of presentation to be more appropriate for the solemnity of their action. (About 200 copies of the familiar typeset version, the “Dunlap broadside,” were printed the night of July 4, 1776 and distributed widely, but the Dunlap broadside and contemporary newspaper reprintings did not feature the signatures. The “Goddard broadside,” another prominent typeset version featuring signatures, did not appear until six months later.) Allow me, therefore, to suggest that the lessons we can glean from the textual history of the Declaration may not apply to the case of tax reform—unless we are to believe that chicken scratch marginalia about S Corps and C Corps is a similar indicator of Senate Republicans’ seriousness of purpose.
It seems far likelier that this was more scramble than ceremony—especially since the changes emerged just hours before a vote that surely kept most Senators up past their bedtimes. But minutes later, Roy added that anybody who wasn’t “too busy obsessing over Russian collusion” would have known that a “months-long policy debate on taxes” had been unfolding prior to last weekend’s activity. This sanguine summary was at odds with a Saturday headline in the Times announcing “last-minute breaks” for a range of industries allied with the GOP, in an article that began this way: “The overhaul by Republican lawmakers of the nation’s tax laws percolated for weeks with virtually no public input, and by the end it turned into a chaotic mad dash with many last-minute changes on Friday night and Saturday morning, some handwritten in the margins of the nearly 500-page bill. Even hours after the Senate vote, tax experts were scratching their heads over precisely what had made it into the final version of the bill and the impact of some significant provisions.”
In the spirit of Roy’s invocation of hand-written legislation, though, let’s turn again to the Declaration. What he fails to note is that its approval was actually preceded by a series of gradual steps over months of debate: In November 1775, the Second Continental Congress had taken the step of recommending that New Hampshire set up a provisional government, and in May 1776 it passed a resolution, proposed by John Adams, urging all the colonies to set up their own govenments. When Richard Henry Lee proposed an independence resolution in June 1776, a vote was delayed because unanimity was not yet in sight. That same month, Congress appointed the Committee of Five (headed by Thomas Jefferson) to draft the Declaration’s text. In her book Our Declaration (on which this account draws), Danielle Allen writes that to finally bring the Declaration into being, “[a]greement—whether through consensus or majority vote—had to be achieved in more than fifty separate instances at a minimum.” Allen even goes further, arguing that “the importance of the Declaration has as much to do with process as with product,” since its method of adoption “established patterns of collaboration” that proved crucial to “ongoing collective action” in the new republic.
Now, American politics may be plagued by historical ignorance, but it does not follow that the solution to every problem simply lies in asking What The Founders Would Do. Nor does every flip remark on Twitter merit serious consideration as a well-considered argument. But in this case, there’s a revealing lesson to be learned—just not the one conservative defenders of the tax bill might have intended.