The voices of Tax Policy Center's researchers and staff
It is hard not to notice that while policymakers are talking tax reform they are walking tax deform. The more they vow to lower tax rates and eliminate targeted tax preferences (close loopholes in Congress-speak), the more bills they push to create new subsidies or juice up old ones.
Yesterday, the Senate Finance Committee created three new tax breaks: a credit for the cost of new professional licenses for military spouses who move to a new duty station, an exclusion for clean coal power grants, and an investment credit for firms that acquire waste-to-heat-power equipment. It also voted to cut excise taxes for producers of hard cider and to allow Paul Newman’s charity to retain control of the Newman’s Own salad dressing brand without losing its tax-exempt status.
Today, the Ways & Means Committee moved to approve measures to restore and make permanent $300 billion worth of tax extenders, including the research credit and the deduction for state and local sales taxes, as well as a proposal to expand Sec. 529 college savings accounts.
Other lawmakers are busily introducing their own bills to extend existing tax breaks or create new ones. For instance, this week congressmen Pat Tiberi (R-OH) and Richard Neal (D-MA) put in a measure to make permanent and more generous the New Markets Tax Credit. Sen.Mike Crapo (R-ID) introduced one to exclude from tax certain assistance for grads of veterinary schools.
There are a few things happening here.
First, lawmakers can’t help themselves. It is, in some fashion, their job to introduce bills, including tax bills. Besides, if you believe that real tax reform isn’t going to happen any time soon, there is no reason not to push a favored piece of legislation.
The tax extenders are a special case. In one important way, congressional interest in making them permanent reflects a belief that tax reform may happen soon.
The possibility of rate-cutting reform that does not increase the deficit has flipped on its head congressional thinking about the extenders. Until recently, the idea was to extend these tax breaks one year at a time so the official 10-year budget score looked artificially small. (Extend for one year at a time a tax cut that costs $1 billion annually and the 10 year budget cost is just $1 billion. Extend it for the full ten years, and it costs $10 billion).
Now, it is a different world. Many lawmakers now want Congress to approve permanent extensions of these tax breaks, thus building their full cost into the budget baseline. When it comes time for Congress to kill these preferences, it would then get credit for 10-years of revenue instead of just one.
Of course, if reform does not happen, these tax breaks will have been made permanent anyway. So, no harm done if you are a fan of these subsidies.
The House leadership seems to have fully embraced this strategy. But the Senate GOP leaders, including Finance Committee chair Orrin Hatch (R-UT) have so far kept their distance. Hatch, in fact, has warned that upper-income taxpayers may have to give up some preferences in exchange for lower rates. And he seems to recognize that playing baseline games with tax extenders now would only antagonize Senate Democrats.
The bottom line: Lawmakers continue to talk about reform, but their actions suggest ambiguity at best. And, as always, when you want to understand what politicians are really thinking, pay attention to what they do, not what they say.
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