Time for a Serious Review of Tax Extenders

A House panel today began what could be the beginning of a remarkable exercise: It is reviewing the merits of dozens of expiring tax provisions that litter the Revenue Code. I hesitate to say so, but this could be a case of Congress doing its actual job.  

By the Joint Committee on Taxation’s count, 75 of these tax extenders have already expired this year or will do so before New Year’s Day. That doesn’t include tax breaks related to the Transportation Trust Fund or federal disaster relief.

It is quite a collection: Subsidies for both oil and gas and alternative fuels, enhanced charitable contributions for computers, the infamous NASCAR race track give-away, and special tax breaks for movie and TV producers, mining companies, railroads, rum, and investment companies to name only a few. And, of course, the Research and Experimentation Tax Credit that has taken on mythical status in Washington yet seems to do little or nothing to enhance research.    

The House Ways & Means Select Revenue Measures subcommittee began its review today by hearing from fellow Members of Congress—most of whom wanted to preserve one subsidy or another.

This effort may not only be good government, it also takes certain amount of courage on the part of Committee Chair Dave Camp (R-MI) and subcommittee chair Pat Tiberi (R-OH).  After all, eliminating any tax breaks is heresy in some precincts of the GOP. Yet Camp seems prepared to take some on.

Now, a cynic might suggest that this review, coming in the heat of the election season, is little more than a campaign finance shakedown. The temporary nature of these tax breaks serves two very valuable purposes for Members of Congress. It allows them to misrepresent the true 10-year budget cost of these subsidies.  And, when it comes to campaign contributions, they are the gifts that keep on giving.  

The mere mention that Congress is reviewing an extender is good for a fundraiser or two, to say nothing of helping fill the coffers of the lobbyists who are often themselves ex-members or former Hill staffers.

Still, the only real benefit of making tax subsidies temporary is to give Congress a chance to review them. In a perfect world, lawmakers would consider the economic costs and benefits of each provision and choose whether or not to continue it (of course, in a truly perfect world, Congress  would do this before it ever passed the bill in the first place, but let’s not get carried away).

This review almost never happens. Instead, after much delay and speechifying, Congress mindless extends the subsidies en bloc.

The political pressure to do this is immense. Today, for instance, the Business Roundtable, which represents CEOs of many of the nation’s biggest companies, told Congress   it “strongly supports the immediate and seamless extension of the expired business tax provisions from last year.”

My guess is that if you asked one of these corporate execs to name just three of the dozens of tax breaks the BRT has so wholeheartedly embraced, you’d get a blank stare. Yet, this group—which regularly demands that Congress address the budget deficit–wants all the business extenders extended (it said nothing about individual tax breaks that are also expiring).

So, political cynicism aside, give Camp credit for beginning a process that may lead to a serious review of these tax code subsidies. Now, let’s see if he follows though by proposing to get rid of some of the worst.