Federal Tax Reform? Don’t Bet The Rent Money On It

In some years there are no budgets. This year we have been presented with thre dueling budgets, one from each house and one from the president. Neither house has picked conferees, and neither has any current inclination to do so. Each prefers to glare at the other until the next election day.

The “Grand Bargain” on the Federal budget this year is still possible, but it seems less and less likely. The prospect is for another year of small deals, recurring crises, and several continuing resolutions.

As hopes for the big fiscal fix recede, tax reform moves to center stage. Ideally, tax reform ought to be a part of a larger budget agreement. But, with that agreement now slipping out of reach for 2013, tax reform seems to some observers to be a more promising suspect.

Tax reform appeals to both parties for different reasons. Democrats need it for new spending to stimulate growth. Republicans want to use it for lowering tax rates for the same reason. Those differences may be irreconcilable, but members of Congress seem to want to give tax reform a try.

Perhaps the best reason for tax reform optimism lies in the fact that the chairmen of both tax-writing committees really want to do it. Dave Camp, chair of the House Ways & Means Committee, is now serving his last term as chair under caucus rules. Max Baucus, Camp’s Senate Finance Committee counterpart, is in a similar position. He is retiring from Congress after this term.

Both of these leaders are strongly motivated to produce a tax bill before they slide into history. Both are able veterans who know the tax code. They meet regularly. Both have held hearings on tax reform, and have given it much study over the past two years. In addition, Camp has the blessing of the House Republican leadership including Speaker Boehner, who has saved the precious number, HR 1, for a tax reform bill.

Some business interests, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, want to see reform of the tax code, too. Many of them see advantages in potentially lower rates, and in reform of U.S. taxation of their foreign income. American business is by no means unified on this subject, but there clearly is plenty of interest.

There is, however, another side to the tax reform story. Historically, it is a rare event. The last successful effort was in 1986. Before that one has to backtrack to 1958 to identify a major tax reform enactment. In the 1986 version, both Congressional parties, (with Democrats in the majority) and the President, Ronald Reagan, strongly supported it. Even so, the process took two years. Nobody believes that the 1986 political consensus can be duplicated today.

In 1986, the American people polled strongly in favor of tax reform. Nowadays, they are not so sure. They saw the 1986 act substantially altered by amendment in the years immediately thereafter. Today, the public is not sure that tax reform will help them. And, even if it does help, they are pretty sure it will soon be amended beyond recognition. Trust in the government has all but faded away in the last three decades.

In the end, the biggest hurdle for tax reform will be to overcome the opposition of interests who are unwilling to part with their tax preferences peaceably. Unsurprisingly, many individuals and corporations just love their tax preferences. Some of them would be worse off with a system that abolished those preferences even if their basic tax rates were lowered.

This group is sophisticated. It knows how to make strategic political contributions, and it knows how to lobby successfully. It also knows how to maneuver in the current political environment where polarization is the rule, and in which members of Congress do not often trust one another. For these interests, the conditions on the playing field are just about perfect for defending their preferences.

Just as the country needs a Grand Bargain, it also needs tax reform. It would be wonderful if tax reform could be achieved this year. The two chairmen and many members will give the good old college try. But, if a budget compromise is not possible, it also seems unlikely that a good tax reform bill can be enacted. Cheer for tax reform; pray for it; just don’t bet the rent money on it.