Congress is setting up for a showdown this fall on the budget, the debt ceiling and possibly immigration reform.
But another item on the agenda hasn’t been getting as much attention — tax reform. The chairmen of the two tax writing committees have been working for years, holding hearings, releasing white papers, even hosting bipartisan tax chat lunches at a pub — often with little notice.
Dave Camp is a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Max Baucus is a Montana Democrat and leads the Senate Finance Committee.
On Monday they were both wearing nearly identical dark suits with light blue shirts, top button open, no necktie, as they launched their tax reform tour in Minnesota.
“We decided just to get out of Washington,” says Baucus, explaining the idea behind the tour to a group gathered in an auditorium at the headquarters of the 3M company. “And just meet with people around the country, and you’re number one. You’re the first visit. There is a bit of a bubble in Washington, it’s true, and we’re just doing our best to kind of break it.”
Baucus and Camp shared a podium and maintained a friendly rapport that would make it hard to tell they were from different parties — parties that don’t get along — and also have very different ideas about tax policy.
How is this possible? Because they spend most of their time, at least publicly, talking about the things they do agree on.
“What we’re trying to do is have a code that lowers rates for everybody with fewer loopholes and special provisions,” says Camp. “A simpler, fairer, flatter tax code that grows the economy and provides jobs.”
At some point, the pair will have to deal with some sticky issues, like whether tax reform will raise new revenue to reduce the deficit, or simply be used to lower people’s taxes.
Making the code simpler and flatter means eliminating some tax deductions — and each one has a constituency, says Roberton Williams, a fellow at the non-partisan Tax Policy Center.
“The process of change disrupts a lot of what we’ve got right now, and because there are winners and losers, not everyone will benefit,” Williams says. “And those people don’t want to see the kinds of change that will come about.”
He says he’s pessimistic that tax reform can really happen in this political environment.
Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, says the road show and other efforts to get the public involved are a good thing.
“But it’s no substitute for digging into the hard issues, looking at the differences and seeing if we can find common ground,” Levin says. “There’s no alternative to that.”
Camp says they’re getting there.
“The commitment is to really try to move something forward, and clearly there are going to be differences.” he says. “I mean there always are. The real issue is how you resolve those differences, and we’re committed to try to do that.”
The next stop on the tour is expected later this month. The chairmen have also set up a website, taxreform.gov, where they’re asking for feedback from the public. So far they’ve gotten more than 10,000 comments.