Why is tax reform ‘dead on arrival’?

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Dave Camp on Capitol Hill, Oct. 29, 2013.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Dave Camp on Capitol Hill, Oct. 29, 2013.
Photo by Evan Vucci/AP
When it comes to evaluating any piece of legislation, substantive considerations should always outweigh political considerations. The first questions political observers should ask about a bill is, “What’s in it?” and “Is the proposal any good?” Questions about whether something can pass and the broader electoral impact should come second.
 
But once in a great while, there are exceptions.
 
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), after three years of work, unveiled his plan for a major overhaul of the nation’s federal tax code yesterday. It’s an ambitious tax-reform package, which would ordinarily require intense scrutiny.
 
And to be sure, much of that scrutiny is already underway. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities published a helpful overview this morning, as did the editorial board of the New York Times. Some on the left find it a credible place to start a conversation, others not so much.
 
What’s more, I agree with Tim Noah that Camp deserves at least some credit for putting pen to paper and making specific ideas available for public scrutiny: “Camp deserves praise for doing something Mitt Romney never dared to do as a presidential candidate in 2012. He identifies specific tax breaks that he would eliminate in order to replace the revenue lost in lowering top rates.”
 
But if we chose to be realistic, it doesn’t much matter whether Camp’s plan has merit or not. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that tax reform is dead in this Congress – and he made the declaration before the plan was even unveiled. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was even more dismissive.
Big banks would face a new tax on lending. Taxes paid to state and local governments would no longer be deductible. The earned income credit for low-wage workers would be converted to a more limited deduction on payroll taxes. The mortgage deduction and retirement savings breaks would be curtailed.
 
[Camp] unveiled a sweeping overhaul of the 70,000-page federal tax code on Wednesday that would collapse seven personal income tax brackets to two and lower the corporate rate to 25 percent from 35 percent.
 
But the seeds of the plan’s destruction might be found in the fine print. When asked about the proposal’s details on Wednesday, House Speaker John A. Boehner replied, “Blah, blah, blah, blah.”
That’s not some rude characterization of Boehner’s response; that was literally what Boehner said in response to a reporter’s question.
 
A year ago, congressional Republicans made tax reform their top priority. This week, GOP leaders scoffed at the idea of even trying to get a bill done. What happened?
 
House Republicans originally gave tax reform the special H.R. 1 designation – a symbolic bill number intended to convey its significance – with the intention of unveiling Camp’s plan in the fall of 2013.
 
But by November, the GOP’s priorities had shifted. They no longer wanted to tackle the difficult task of working with Democrats on an overhaul of tax code; they instead wanted to complain about “Obamacare.” Shifting their attention to policy work would have, the party decided, been an unwelcome distraction.
 
Three months later, there’s even less of a Republican appetite to do real work on this or any other issue. For GOP officials, the electoral pieces for 2014 have already fallen into place – they’re very likely to keep their House majority; a Senate majority is within reach; the public has largely forgotten about their government shutdown; and polls show Republicans persevering despite broad unpopularity.
 
So why rock the boat by governing? For party leaders, it’s easier to just run out the clock, working the assumption that the public won’t punish them for doing nothing constructive for the last few years.
 
Sure, GOP lawmakers could try to accomplish something, but the effort would almost certainly divide Republicans, and there’s no guarantee they’d get a bill done, anyway. Worse, if they succeeded, it might offer an election-year win for President Obama, the very idea of which is a non-starter.
 
The result is a wasted opportunity, a bill going nowhere, and a House Speaker reduced to “Blah, blah, blah, blah” in response to an important piece of legislation unveiled by one of his intra-party allies.
 

Dave Camp, Tax Policy and Tax Reform

Why is tax reform 'dead on arrival'?