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In a few weeks, veteran Utah Republican Orrin Hatch will become chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Soon after, the panel may begin tackling tax reform. While there is good reason to be skeptical about how far a tax code rewrite will get in the next Congress, it is worth keeping track of Hatch’s views on the subject.
In a Senate speech on Tuesday, he laid out his seven principles for reform. None are a surprise, all are generic, and several are contradictory. But that’s the nature of rewriting the revenue code—balancing many meritorious goals that cannot all be achieved.
For the record, here are Hatch’s:
Economic Growth: Hatch defines this as reducing marginal rates. In a recent paper, my Tax Policy Center colleague Bill Gale and Dartmouth’s Andrew Samwick found little evidence that past rate cuts have, in fact, boosted growth.
Fairness: Fairness can mean progressivity or it can mean horizontal equity-- where people or firms making the same amount of money pay the same tax. To Hatch, it means the latter. Thus, he’d broaden the tax base by reducing tax expenditures and lowering rates.
Simplicity: Hatch’s aim here is to reduce compliance costs.
Permanence: Hatch says taxpayers deserve certainty. This, he implies, means no more expiring tax provisions.
Competitiveness: He’d cut rates on businesses and create a “level playing field” for U.S.-based multinationals, by which he appears to mean a territorial system where corporations pay U.S. tax only on income earned in the U.S.
Promoting savings and investment: Hatch does not say how, but he has been a long-time supporter of low rates on investment income, including capital gains and dividends, as well as incentives for retirement savings.
Revenue neutrality: “Tax reform should not be used as an excuse to raise taxes,” he said. Seems pretty clear.
Hatch’s Finance Committee staff has produced a 340-page volume that fleshes out these principles, but only a little. The document, entitled Comprehensive Tax Reform for 2015 and Beyond, does a nice job describing the nature of the problems with the existing code, though that’s been done elsewhere.
Unlike outgoing House Ways & Means Committee Chair Dave Camp, Hatch does not follow up the diagnosis with a proposed treatment plan. Rather the staff report is salted with a wide range of alternatives.
For instance, after explaining how the current code discourages savings and investment, the report outlines a long list of possible solutions, including various forms of consumption taxes. But it would take a Talmudic reading of the paper to figure out which Hatch really favors.
In his Senate speech, Hatch says reform proposals should “be relevant” to at least one of his seven proposals. That is, I suppose, a realistic acknowledgement of how hard it is for any plan to achieve all of Hatch’s goals.
How hard? The day before delivering his seven principles, Hatch endorsed a new retirement savings proposal for employees of small businesses. The idea may have merit, but adding yet another tax-advantaged savings plan to the fistful of others that lard the code will not make it simpler.
Some of Hatch’s guideposts can be dismissed as platitudes. Is anyone opposed to economic growth? Others take on more fraught political meaning. For instance, when he flatly rejects using reform as a way to raise revenue, he runs into a demand by President Obama and many congressional Democrats that reform must raise revenue. In his speech, Hatch says while there is wide support for reform, there is “disagreement on the details.”
Agreeing on how much revenue a new code should raise is no detail. And it is an example of what a tough job Hatch will have if he tries to turn his principles into law.
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