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Reality check on Elizabeth Warren’s biggest ideas

Photo illustration of Elizabeth Warren
Photo Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo via Joseph Prezioso/Getty Contributor

Here’s a look at the odds for 10 of Elizabeth Warren’s most ambitious plans, according to Democratic aides, former White House policy officials from both parties, and Axios’ issue experts.

1) Wealth tax: It’s a popular proposal, with solid support even among Republican voters, and it's one idea Warren could advance through budget reconciliation, which requires only 51 votes in the Senate.

But Warren’s idea of a 2% annual tax on household net worth of $50 million and over — with an additional 4% annual tax on amounts above $1 billion — would have a hard time passing in this form even among Democrats, largely because of the practical problems in implementing it.

  • A Senate Democratic aide who works on tax issues said the IRS would have a tough time determining the value of private wealth for everyone who would be affected — noting that the Warren campaign acknowledged the IRS would have to "develop new valuation rules as needed" for certain assets.
  • The Warren campaign, however, insists the tax would be easy to administer since it would be based on current IRS rules.

2) Medicare for All: The big sign this one is unlikely to materialize beyond the campaign trail: Democrats couldn’t even pass a public option — now considered the moderate alternative to Medicare for All — as part of the Affordable Care Act in 2009, when they had 60 votes in the Senate.

  • There’s no scenario in which they’d have anything close to that size majority after the 2020 elections, even if they did manage to win control, at least under the current Senate map.
  • Plus, Medicare for All’s support among all Americans tanked in the latest Quinnipiac University poll (although Democrats still like it).

3) College debt (eliminate $640 billion in student debt, establish free public college): Democrats broadly agree on the goal of making college more affordable, but they’re likely to debate the cost and whether any proposal should be targeted toward low-income people, according to a Senate Democratic aide who works on education issues.

4) Breaking up Big Tech: Warren intends to appoint officials at the nation’s antitrust agencies — the Federal Trade Commission and the antitrust division of the Justice Department — who are “committed to reversing illegal and anti-competitive tech mergers,” Axios’ Margaret Harding McGill reports.

  • But while aggressive antitrust enforcement is almost a given under Warren, that’s only the beginning of the story when it comes to breaking up a company.
  • “In the end, it’s the courts that decide if there’s an antitrust violation and what the appropriate remedy is,” said Gene Kimmelman, a former DOJ antitrust official who’s now a senior adviser at Public Knowledge, a nonprofit that focuses on tech issues. “It will probably be an uphill battle to break everybody up.”

5) Green New Deal: The sweeping plan — which includes federal guarantees for health care, housing and jobs on top of aggressive climate change and clean energy goals — would almost certainly fail in the next Congress, given how many moderate Democrats have been skeptical of it and the virtual certainty that Republicans would oppose it.

6) Corporate tax (7% tax on companies’ profits over $100 million): This one’s tougher to call given that Senate Democrats just aren’t talking about it, according to a Senate Democratic aide — but the silence certainly doesn’t suggest a burning desire for it.

  • And the corporate tax rate itself, which was cut from 35% to 21% in the 2017 tax cut law, isn’t likely to be reversed completely — since even Democrats wouldn’t all agree to raise it back to 35%, the aide said.

7) Banks (21st Century Glass-Steagall Act to separate commercial banks from investment banks): Warren would need legislation to carry that out, Axios’ Felix Salmon reports — but she could appoint aggressive members of the Financial Stability Oversight Council, an entity created by the Dodd-Frank banking overhaul.

8) Private equity: Ideas like making buyout funds liable for leveraged financing — and banning them from paying themselves monitoring fees — aren’t about to get through Congress, at least under the current makeup, as Axios’ Dan Primack has written. (His one caveat: there could be more tailwinds for her ideas if she wins.)

9) Decriminalize immigration violations: This idea — which isn’t popular even among Democrats — could be within Warren’s reach, as a Warren Justice Department could just issue instructions not to prosecute border crossings, per Axios’ Stef Kight.

10) Fracking ban: Warren could ban the controversial oil and gas extraction method on federal lands, but a ban on private and state lands would need approval from Congress, Axios’ Amy Harder reports.

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