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Senate Tax Writers Offer Colleagues 50 Years of Secrecy

July 25, 2013

During the 2012 campaign, Republicans Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan proposed what might be called "tax cuts for cowards." That is, Romney/Ryan proposed slashing tax rates for the wealthy and corporations, partially offsetting the trillions in lost revenue by promising to close some of the hundreds of loopholes and tax breaks that cost Uncle Sam over $1.2 trillion a year. But neither Romney nor Ryan had the guts to identify even a single deduction they would end. Now, over a year after Ryan told voters "we want to do this in the light of day, not in some backroom," the men trying to rewrite the federal tax code have told their Senate colleagues they will keep their suggestions secret for the next 50 years.
To be sure, the subject of a tax breaks is a politically sensitive and risky one. Curtailing, say, the home mortgage interest deduction (estimated to cost the Treasury $99 billion in 2014), the Earned Income Tax Credit ($58.4) or the deduction for charitable giving ($51 billion) could profoundly impact Americans at differently levels of the income later. Which is why, The Hill reported Wednesday, Senate tax code reformers Max Baucus (D-MT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) are promising their fellow Senators a cone of silence over the whole process:

The Senate's top tax writers have promised their colleagues 50 years' worth of secrecy in exchange for suggestions on what deductions and credits to preserve in tax reform.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the panel's top Republican, Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), assured lawmakers that any submission they receive will be kept under lock and key by the committee and the National Archives until the end of 2064.
Deeming the submissions confidential, the Senate's top tax writers have said only certain staff members -- 10 in all -- will get direct access to a senator's written suggestions. Each submission will also be given its own ID number and be kept on password-protected servers, with printed versions kept in locked safes.

That pledge was made just two days before the Finance Committee's "blank slate" deadline, a milestone by which lawmakers are to propose which credits and deductions should be kept in a streamlined tax code. As one aide explained, ""The letter was done at the request of offices to provide some assurance that the committee would not make their submissions public," adding. "Sens. Baucus and Hatch are going out of their way to assure their colleagues they will keep the submissions in confidence."
This latest attempt to erect a veil of ignorance between Congress and the public comes even as Baucus and his House counterpart Dave Camp (R-MI) are touring the country seeking input into the process bot in person and via social media. Announcing their effort in April, Baucus and Camp cautioned that "we cannot provide you every detail of the bill today, we can commit to you that we are writing tax reform bills." At one gathering last month, both Baucus and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Camp kept their own preferences close to the vest:

Both chairmen refused to say what they supported or what tax loopholes they'd propose closing. Camp focused instead on areas of agreement.
"There are so many good (tax) simplification policies that we agree on," he said.
Asked whether they'll propose limiting the mortgage-interest deduction that homeowners now enjoy, Camp acknowledged that two-thirds of Americans don't itemize their federal taxes and said that perhaps a complete rethink was in order.

While most of what Camp and Baucus agree on remains hidden, the biggest disagreement is very public. Camp insists that the tax code overhaul must be "revenue-neutral," while Baucus supports reform of tax expenditures that ultimately generate more tax dollars after rates are lowered. But despite that critical unresolved issue, both men want to tie the next debt ceiling increase to the successful outcome of their still-secret proposal:

Despite representing parties with great philosophical differences, Baucus and Camp said they genuinely liked each other and were working to find middle ground. Both think the looming battle over raising the federal debt ceiling later this year, roughly mid-October, might be the vehicle for moving tax legislation.

Given House Republicans' willingness to block the debt limit hike (and thus trigger a default by the United States) over a growing list of demands (including more spending cuts and defunding Obamacare), it's hard to imagine a more dangerous timeline for tax reform.
Dangerous, and thus far, very secret.
Back in March 2012, Mitt Romney mocked analyses that predicted his tax plan could produce $5 trillion in new debt over the next decade. "Frankly it can't be scored," Romney claimed, "because those kinds of details will have to be worked out with Congress, and we have a wide array of options." Paul Ryan made the same point about his similar House GOP budget plan, evading questions about which loopholes he'd close by pointing the finger elsewhere:

"That's what the Ways & Means Committee is supposed to do. That's not the job of the Budget Committee. What we're saying is, we want to do this in the light of day, not in some backroom deal. We want to have hearings in the Ways & Means Committee that Chairman Dave Camp has already started that work, to say what tax benefits should go."

Working with Camp, Max Baucus and Orrin Hatch want to do this in the light of day, too. In 2064.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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