At the lunch table outside Penn Machine Works, the conversation usually hinges on “beer, football, and dating sites,” joked Louis Turner, an engineer at the small, family-owned pipe-fitting factory in Delaware County.
But the night before, they’d heard House Speaker Paul Ryan was coming to plug the Republicans’ tax plan at their 180-employee plant in Aston. And so the machinists had come prepared Thursday.
“There’s just a lack of detail so far,” said Michael Maguire, a 20-year employee. (“The underlying message of this administration,” cracked Henok Yacob, a fellow machinist.)
“It will benefit the wealthy, and I don’t know how it fits in with the middle class — and cutting the estate tax? Why do you think Trump wants it? How can he say it’s not benefiting him?” said James Gartensleben, a programmer on the massive machines the company uses to cut pipes.
With the factory floor and a crowd of workers as backdrops, Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, sold the tax proposal as a boon to the middle class, and said provisions to slash the corporate tax rate would unleash economic growth.
“We want to make sure the middle class gets a tax cut,” Ryan said, decrying “our goofy tax laws” that he said are overly complicated and hamper U.S. competitiveness.
As outlined, the GOP plan would double the standard deduction and condense personal income tax brackets from seven to three: 12 percent, 25 percent, and 35 percent. (Previously, the lowest tax bracket paid 10 percent and the highest 39.6 percent.) The standard deduction would double to $24,000.
“How can you guarantee that cutting the corporate tax rate is going to make its way down to workers?” Richard Bennett, a crew leader from Wilmington, had wondered at lunch.
After Ryan finished touring the factory, Bennett raised his hand and asked the speaker the same question.
Ryan told Bennett that cutting the corporate tax rate — from 35 percent to 20 percent — would translate to more American jobs paying American workers. “Let’s just stop shooting ourselves in the foot in our country,” he said, noting that the U.S. has the highest corporate tax rate among industrialized nations.
Ryan, who has staked his career on tax reform, was enthusiastic as he took a half-dozen questions from workers, grinning next to Rep. Pat Meehan (R., Pa.), the Seventh District representative who had invited him here and who, like Ryan, has had some difficulty distancing himself from the bombastic presence in the White House as Republicans attempt to push through a foundering legislative agenda before the 2018 campaign season kicks into gear.
When he was in the Philadelphia region in January, Ryan told a crowd of Republican lawmakers at a Center City retreat that the party planned to repeal the Affordable Care Act by the end of March and pass tax reform by the end of August. The party’s fourth major attempt to repeal the ACA failed this week, and his self-imposed deadline for tax reform is a month overdue.
And local Democrats are already buzzing about the fight ahead, attempting to tie Meehan as much as possible to President Trump: “He’s not on the ballot, but his policies and his enablers are, and Meehan and Ryan are enablers,” said Joe Corrigan, the senior adviser for Delaware County Democrats. “They can try to rebrand tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, but no photo op at a factory is going to change that.”
Meehan and Ryan were nonetheless greeted with cheers at Penn Machine Works, founded in 1931 and still run by the Lafferty family. They were returning to familiar Republican ground: Then-candidate Trump had visited the largely blue-collar township twice during the campaign, touring the nearby Aston Community Center with his daughter Ivanka to tout an as-yet-unrealized child-care plan, and holding a rally at a film studio just outside Chester.
But though Delaware County tends to elect Republican leaders locally, the county swung hard to Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. Democrats are banking on that next year.
Still, several workers at Penn Machine said they had enjoyed the speech. “He nailed it — if they end up lowering taxes, we’ll end up a lot better,” said Michael Hazm, who filmed the speech from the factory floor. “Health care and taxes, those are the two big things.”
Meehan, who called Ryan a “very special friend,” told the crowd the proposed cuts were “not about the rich — they’re about giving you a chance to put money in your pocket.”
Others at the factory remained unconvinced. “It all sounds great,” Maguire shrugged, “but we need to see the details. And I wish he would have talked about a bipartisan effort to pass the plan.”
Bennett, surrounded by a cluster of TV cameras afterward, smiled wryly. He hadn’t gotten the guarantee he wanted. “As a politician,” he said, “[Ryan] does know how to dance around the question.”