Whither the Tax Extenders?
By Howard Gleckman :: December 10th, 2013
In three weeks, more than 60 expiring tax provisions will…expire. At least for a while.
It isn’t unusual for these mostly-business tax breaks to temporarily disappear, only to come back from the dead a few months after their technical expiration. But this time businesses are more nervous than usual. Their problem: Congress may have few opportunities to continue these so-called extenders in 2014.
This doesn’t mean the expiring provisions won’t be brought back to life. In the end, nearly all will. But right now, it is hard to see a clear path for that happening.
When Congress extended the full package of expiring provisions in January, it reduced 2013 revenues by about $70 billion (not counting a patch to the Alternative Minimum Tax—more about that in a minute). It included widely used subsidies such as the Research and Experimentation Tax Credit as well as highly targeted breaks for auto racetrack owners and Manhattan real estate developers.
Assuming Congress does extend the expiring provisions sometime in calendar 2014, the delay would have no impact on the 2014 final tax returns that most business wouldn’t file until in 2015.But it would make business executives nervous since it adds a layer of uncertainty to their investment and other decisions.
Here is the landscape: If all goes according to plan, sometime in the next week or so Congress will approve a modest budget deal that would set broad tax and spending targets for this year and next. This measure would declare a fiscal ceasefire between the warring political parties through the 2014 congressional elections.
If published reports are correct--and if the deal does not fall apart--Congress would partially replace the hated automatic across-the-board spending cuts (the sequester) with more traditional targets for each federal agency. In effect, it would freeze discretionary spending at about $1 trillion-a-year for the next two years. Without a new agreement the 2014 level would be $967 billion.
The deal would replace the sequester cuts with a grab-bag of other reductions in planned spending and a bunch of increased fees for airline travelers and others.
But the “t” word will go unspoken in this agreement. There will reportedly be no tax hikes in the bargain. But neither will there be a continuation of expiring provisions. And there is no chance they will be extended in any other bill in calendar 2013.
Of course, that still leaves all of 2014. But the story of next year may be lots of time, but few opportunities.
Congressional aides say lawmakers won’t pass an extender bill as free-standing legislation. Thus, it would have to ride with some other measure. But what?
The budget agreement on the table today would be a two year deal, so there would be no budget resolution in calendar 2014. The threat of a January government shutdown would go away. And there is little chance that Congress would add the extenders to controversial measures such as the farm bill. The “doc fix” that resolves a long-standing mess involving Medicare payments to physicians could be a vehicle, but that measure may be added to the pending budget agreement.
The dynamics of the extenders also changed when Congress permanently patched the AMT last January. That measure will keep millions of middle-class households off the tax. On one hand, by removing the AMT patch out from the annual extenders game, Congress eliminated a key bit of leverage to pass a bill. On the other, Congress vastly reduced the total cost of the extenders. The permanent AMT patch cost $1.8 trillion over 10 years.
Then there is the matter of how the extenders fit into tax reform. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) have said the extenders should be considered as part of tax reform-- where many would presumably disappear. It is increasingly unlikely that such a rewrite will happen in 2014 but it isn’t clear when, if, or how, the tax-writers will decouple the extenders from the reform effort.
Finally, Congress will have to decide whether to pay for extending these temporary tax cuts or not. Will a new budget resolution require this? And will Congress comply?
In the end, the extenders likely will be brought back to life, even though my Tax Policy Center colleague Donald Marron likes to call them the tax expirers. They always are. Many of the biggest, such as the R&E credit, enjoy broad bipartisan support. And unfortunately, lawmakers have no interest in seriously reviewing others, most of which are little more than tax pork. But the political dynamics of 2014 will make the extenders battle interesting to watch.