By Susan Davis
WASHINGTON — The top two tax writers on Capitol Hill want to overhaul the federal tax code for the first time since 1986 and they are soliciting help from the public to help get it done.
Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat, and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, a Republican, are launching a website Thursday — taxreform.gov — and a Twitter handle, @simplertaxes, aimed at inviting taxpayers to offer comments and complaints about how to change the tax code.
“The average person can’t get a Washington lobbyist to get a provision in to lower their taxes or a fancy lawyer or accountant to wind their way through the 15,000 changes that have occurred since the last time the code was looked at,” Camp told USA TODAY in a joint interview with Baucus.
“We want to make sure the average American has full access to what we’re doing,” added Baucus, “Give us some stories — even horror stories — to add context and meaning to what we’re doing here.”
In 1985, former House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., gave a nationally televised response to President Reagan during which he encouraged viewers to write him a letter of support for reforming the tax code. “Even if you can’t spell Rostenkowski, put down what they used to call my father and grandfather: Rosty,” he told viewers, who reportedly sent upwards of 75,000 letters to the congressman, propelling him as a national figure. The following year, Congress approved a broad overhaul of the federal tax code.
“This is the 2013 version of ‘Write Rosty,’ ” Baucus said.
The chairmen’s enthusiasm for reforming the tax code isn’t mirrored among their colleagues on either side of the aisle, and there is skepticism it can be done. “I think that divided government has proven that bipartisan accomplishment is very difficult,” said Sam Geduldig, a GOP lobbyist and former senior congressional aide. “That said, there are some important forces coalescing. Stranger things have happened.”
The continued partisan divide over whether an overhaul should raise more revenues to help lower the deficit remains a significant obstacle to a deal.
Congressional Republicans want to close tax loopholes and other special interest tax breaks to simplify the code and reduce individual and corporate tax rates. Republicans have been explicit since the January tax deal that raised rates on wealthy Americans that they will support no further tax increases.
President Obama and congressional Democrats want to do largely the same, but instead of using revenues to lower rates, they prefer to use it to reduce the deficit and fund government efforts, like building roads and bridges. In March, White House spokesman Jay Carney conceded “enormous obstacles” remain in reaching any further deals to reduce the deficit.
Camp declined to speculate on how the revenue debate could play out. “I think we need to go to work on the bill and not focus on what our differences might be on an issue like that, and not go to our two corners,” he said. However, Baucus has been more explicit that a compromise will be required to pass a divided Congress. “We’re going down the road of tax reform, and at some point we’re going to get to that fork in the road,” he said of using revenues for rate reduction versus debt reduction, “And we’ll have to decide which path we go on, but more likely it’s going to be a compromise.”
President Obama supports a revenue neutral — meaning the government will collect the same amount of money — overhaul of the corporate tax code, but he has been consistent in seeking an additional $600 billion in tax revenue to help close the budget gap.
The best opportunity for moving a tax overhaul may come later this year, when Congress will have to vote to increase the debt ceiling, the nation’s borrowing limit, which is expected to come no later than the fall.
Already, negotiators are openly discussing the possibility of tying conditions of a tax overhaul to the debt increase in order to pass it. Camp said it was “an idea worth pursuing” and Baucus likewise said he would consider it. “I’m open to anything that works,” he said.
Time is not on their side: Baucus is retiring and Camp’s term as chairman of Ways and Means expires at the end of this Congress. “We’ve double-downed to get tax reform passed,” Baucus said. And with no burden to hit the campaign trail, Baucus says he has “more time to talk to colleagues and whoever will listen to me.”