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August 02, 2013 11:44 AM Tax Reform Not On the Way Real Soon

By Ed Kilgore

Back before “de-funding Obamacare” became the favorite right-wing goal in the annual ritual of hostage-taking over the debt limit and/or the ability of the federal government to operate, and before less-rabid conservatives were casting about for a draconian spending-cut target to serve as a substitute, it was conventional wisdom (according to Politico, anyway) that “tax reform” would represent the number one GOP demand.

So could that proposition rise from the grave this fall, particularly if congressional Republicans cannot find their butts with both hands in seeking a consensus position on spending? Bruce Bartlett explains bluntly why that’s not happening at The Fiscal Times:

On Wednesday, Politico reported that House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, Republican of Michigan, plans to mark-up a tax reform bill in October and tie it to an increase in the debt limit.
Simultaneously, it was reported that Camp is considering a run for the U.S. Senate next year to replace the retiring Senator Carl Levin.
These two stories tell a lot about the future of tax reform in Washington, and it’s not encouraging news. For one thing, Camp may be caught up in a hard fought campaign next year to win Levin’s seat and won’t have a lot of extra time to tend to the heavy lifting of writing the first major tax reforms since 1986….
Moreover, unless he can get a waiver to a House Republican Conference rule limiting chairmen to three consecutive terms in office, Camp will be on his way out while others will clawing to win his chairmanship -and probably would prefer that Camp does as little as possible before checking out.

Bartlett goes on to whack the “tax reform on the way!” story-line from various angles, much like a man going after a pinata with a big baseball bat. He also offers one pungent theory for why Camp is talking up an insanely optimistic time-line for tax reform:

Sometime before October, Mr. Camp must produce an actual tax reform bill for the committee to mark-up. At present no comprehensive legislation exists even in draft form for public examination, except for a few bits and pieces. Therefore, we have nothing to analyze or any idea how he plans to slash rates without reducing net federal revenues or benefiting the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.
Consequently, the idea that there will be a tax reform bill for the House to consider by the time it must raise the debt limit is ludicrous. In fact, the Treasury says the debt limit will have to be raised in September if the government is to have the cash to pay the expenses Congress has already incurred. Moreover, the House will only be in session for 9 days in September and must finish all its appropriations bills in that limited time.
Personally, I think Mr. Camp knows full well that he can’t do tax reform this year or next. He just wants a bill for Congress to consider so that there will be many opportunities to meet with lobbyists about their objections to one provision or another. This will help him raise campaign contributions for his very expensive Senate race.

Makes sense. On K Street, nobody can afford to take the risk of assuming that any discussion of eliminating tax loopholes is meaningless. If a Ways & Means Committee chairman says he’s putting together a “tax reform” bill, you’d better get yourself on his schedule with a big fat binder of statistics and talking points in tow, nicely timed with a campaign contribution in recognition of his fine work for the American people. This is why members of Congress value membership on Ways & Means (or in the Senate, Finance) so very highly.

And speaking of Ways & Means as the top of the greasy pole of career advancement in Congress, Bartlett figures Paul Ryan will succeed Camp, just in time to link “tax reform” and a whole host of other conservative policy desiderata to a potential 2016 presidential bid. It’s all the more reason to suspect that talk about legislation in this area is a cover for private agendas for the foreseeable future.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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