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Rep. Sandy Levin (D-MI), the senior Democrat on the House Ways & Means Committee, stood up on the House floor yesterday and urged Congress to refuse to make permanent three special tax breaks for charitable giving unless their $11 billion cost was paid for. Why were his remarks notable? Because Levin was the prime sponsor of one of those measures.
Levin said, “This isn’t a debate about the excellent work of charities or foundations or their vital role in our society….This isn’t about politics…This is about fiscal responsibility and fiscal priorities.”
For months, lawmakers have been jousting over what to do about 55 tax subsidies that expired nearly a year ago. House Republicans would have let many die but also would have restored several and made them permanent, thus adding $450 billion to the debt over the next decade. Senate Democrats wanted to extend all of them but only for 2014 and 2015, at a cost of about $85 billion.
In the rush to adjourn for the year, the House passed a bill to restore nearly all of the tax breaks but only though 2014. But then it made exceptions for three generous subsidies for charitable giving. Alone among the 55 expired tax cuts, it would make those permanent.
The first lets individuals who are age 70½ donate up to $100,000 from their IRAs to charitable organizations without treating the distribution as taxable income.
The second allows taxpayers to take an enhanced deduction for donating land conservation easements.
The third permits companies to take an extra deduction of up to 15 percent of their total income for giving food inventory to food banks and other charities. That’s the one that Levin sponsored in the House.
As with nearly all tax breaks, the merits of these measures are debatable. But Levin was not arguing the merits. He was making a broader fiscal point: Congress should not be giving these tax cuts special treatment. If lawmakers are going to make them permanent, they ought to find $11 billion in offsetting tax hikes or spending cuts to pay for them.
Sure, Levin is not being totally pure about this. After all, he is OK with restoring them for a year without any offsets.
But give Sandy Levin credit. It is not every day you see a politician stand up and object when the House is about to pass one of his own bills. Levin’s modest call for budget restraint is ray of light in the Capitol’s dark night of fiscal irresponsibility. Thank you, congressman.
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