The Wide Tax Reform Gulf Between Baucus and Camp

By :: June 12th, 2012

Yesterday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT), who rarely gives public speeches, laid out his agenda for tax reform. Just for fun, I compared what Baucus told the Bipartisan Policy Center to a speech House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) delivered just three weeks ago to a group of Washington lobbyists.

For optimists, there were some points of agreement. For example, both chairmen focused on the importance of a tax code that encourages economic growth and international competitiveness. Both said it is important for Congress to take a hard look at the individual merits of each of the scores of expiring tax preferences rather than mindlessly extending them as a group--as Congress always does.

But after that, the gulf between the two men is simply stunning. Baucus said flatly that any tax reform has to generate more money. “Deficits and debt are not just a spending problem,” he said, “We simply don’t raise enough revenue.”

Camp is in a far different place: “I can firmly say our goal is: One, block massive, job-killing tax increases; and, two—enact…comprehensive tax reform.”

Of course, one can try to parse Camp’s words and conclude that perhaps he’d support smaller, non-job killing tax increases (whatever they are). Or, perhaps, broadening the tax base is, in his fiscal theology, not a tax increase at all. But even this sort of close Talmudic reading still leaves a revenue chasm between Baucus and Camp. And keep in mind that the two chairmen are far more likely to seek accommodation across the aisle than many in their respective caucuses.

Revenue is not the only place where the two men differ. Camp and the House GOP caucus have set a very specific set of goals for a revised tax code: Set two individual rates of 10 percent and 25 percent; eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax; and move the corporate tax to a territorial system, where the U.S. would tax income generated only in the U.S.

For Baucus, this thinking is exactly backward. In his view, issues such as rates and structure should take a back seat to a broader, macro-economic aim: “We should think about what’s the real reason for tax reform. Why are we doing this?”

To that end, Baucus wants a tax code that reflects changes in both economics and demographics. So, for instance, he wants a revenue code that recognizes the rise of services and technology, and one that addresses the needs of single-parent households.

Camp may be thinking of these issues as well, but his main focus is those low rates.

Finally, there is the matter of short-term tactics. Camp and the House Republicans want a vote this summer on extending all of the 2001/2003 tax cuts. Most Senate Democrats, for their part, want a vote this summer on extending those tax cuts for all but the highest income households. But the always-cautious Baucus does not. He wants to avoid divisive partisan votes before the election.      

It is, of course, dangerous to take the public words of politicians too literally. And when given a choice between listening to what they say or watching what they do, it is always preferable to do the latter. But Camp and Baucus are serious guys in important positions. It never hurts to pay attention to what they have to say.


  1. Michael Bindner  ::  6:36 pm on June 12th, 2012:

    If the mythical Obama-Boehner deal is resurrected once GOP primary season is over, there could be compromise around Simpson Bowles levels – or maybe along the lines of the Gang of Six+ (which is still quietly meeting). If GOP donors forsee the Democrats holding the Senate and winning the House, a deal will get done before the election (whether it is likely or not). The primary season was much more important than November as far as prospects for the GOP having room to deal, since after this point, Grover Norquist has no alternatives but to support the Republican.

  2. Annette Nellen  ::  1:42 am on June 13th, 2012:

    The talk of rate cuts along with base broadening is interesting. A lot of provisions need to be cut from the individual tax system to have a revenue neutral rate cut. But we aren’t hearing what these items are for Republicans (and President Obama is only looking narrowly at the long list of 200+ tax expenditures that can be cut or reduced). With the unfavorable response that Romney got in suggesting that the interest deduction on second homes of upper income taxpayers could be cut, it seems that any cuts – particularly those that affect a lot more than the few individuals affected by Romney’s cut, are unlikely to happen to the degree needed for lower rates. Perhaps the plan is to have drastic cuts to spending when the US is no longer able to borrow. I think we need to be talking more about how some of the rules underlying the largest individual tax expenditures work and which income groups benefit from them. That might help more people see the inequities, complexities and odd spending in our tax system.

  3. Steve Abramson  ::  10:45 am on June 13th, 2012:

    Disappointing not to hear Senators Baucus or Camp mention consideration of Value Added Tax, when revenue-neutral replacement of the Corporate Income Tax by VAT would remove a competitive disadvantage in world trade, i.e., a tax reform with growth potential for the economy and jobs. All our trading partners, including China, use VAT to subtract the burden of the producing country’s government (on export) from the price/value comparison of goods in international trade. Likewise the VAT is added to imports.

    VAT replacing the CIT would also eliminate the double-taxation of dividends. With no CIT, multi-national corporations would repatriate profits and the U.S. would be a greater magnet for foreign investment.

    Then, too, as suggested by William Gale and Isabel Sawhill of Brookings, the initial implementation of the VAT would be an off-budget stimulus, as consumers advanced purchase decisions to avoid the VAT.

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