Dave Camp’s Most Valuable Contribution to Tax Reform

House Ways & Means Committee chair Dave Camp’s most important contribution to the tax reform debate may be this: By proposing a specific, transparent, and fully-realized reform plan, he has made it far tougher for others to credibly promise trillions of dollars in tax cuts without either describing how they’d pay for them or acknowledging that they’d be willing to increase the deficit by those same trillions.

Of course, Camp can’t stop his fellow pols from running such ideas up the flagpole. In fact, this week Senate Republicans proposed exactly such a plan. But it is instructive that the idea, authored by Sen Rob Portman (R-OH), received almost no attention. Portman, a serious legislator, proposed an unserious reform plan because it fails to specify how the rate cuts and other tax reductions would be financed. And the contrast to Camp made that lack of credibility much more obvious.

Camp’s reform had several goals: Cut the top individual rate, eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax, reduce the corporate rate, and redesign the taxation of multinational firms. And, importantly, he aimed to do all this while raising the same amount of revenue and distributing the tax burden roughly the same as under the current law.

Remarkably, Camp did it–at least over the first 10 years (though in the long run his plan may be regressive and lose revenue).

Still, the 1000-page bill puts his plan out there in all its gory detail. It shows just how tough it is to pull together a reform that cuts rates and trims tax preferences while maintaining today’s revenue and the distribution of burdens. And it makes it possible for analysts here at the Tax Policy Center and elsewhere to chew over details, identify strengths and weaknesses, and suggest improvements. We don’t have to guess at what’s in the black box.

It is hard to remember, but this is how good legislation used to be written. It was the way President Reagan, Jack Kemp, Bill Bradley and others began the debate that resulted in the 1986 Tax Reform Act.

Camp’s plan is in stark contrast to other recent GOP tax reform plans, including those put forward by presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 and the Sen. Portman’s effort. Each specified a laundry list of generous tax cuts, but never said how they’d  pay for them. Of course, Democrats have been known to play a similar game:  propose some new government initiative without ever saying how they’d cover the cost.

To understand the difference, compare Camp’s plan to Romney’s or Portman’s (the latter two appear to be similar).

TPC found that, absent unspecified revenue raisers, Romney would have cut taxes by $360 billion in 2015 alone, $251 billion of which would have gone to households with income above $200,000.

By contrast, Camp designed a broad-based, rate-reducing plan that would both raise the same amount of money as the current code and maintain roughly the same distribution of taxes across incomes—at least for the first 10 years.

How did Camp’s plan do it?  First, by creating a variety of extra taxes aimed at the rich. While he would set a top statutory rate of 25 percent, he’d also effectively establish a third tax bracket of 35 percent by imposing a 10 percent surtax on very high-income households. His surtax would apply to a broad measure of income including 401(k) contributions and municipal bond interest and would cap the value of itemized deductions at 25 percent. He’d raise that top effective rate even more by phasing out various provisions of his plan.

Importantly, and in contrast to Romney’s explicit goal of promoting saving and investment, Camp would impose so many new and increased taxes on these activities that the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates his plan would reduce the capital stock relative to current law. He’d restrict the tax benefits of depreciation deductions, research costs, and many special investment provisions. He’d also retain the estate tax and the high-income surtax created by the Affordable Care Act and keep relatively high tax rates on dividends and capital gains for high-income taxpayers.

Camp showed it is not impossible to design base-broadening, rate-reducing, revenue- and distributionally-neutral tax reform. But he’d get there by increasing taxes on saving and investment and imposing a number of increases in effective marginal tax rates on high-income households. Portman and Romney did not support that approach, but never took ownership of other approaches to raise the necessary revenue, either.

Camp’s revenue raisers have no support among his fellow Republicans, but they show the trade-offs that are necessary when a plan starts by cutting tax rates at the top. To do that, and maintain revenue and distributional neutrality, there is no real choice other than to raise taxes on investment income–which is disproportionately earned by the highest-income households.

By explicitly laying out those difficult trade-offs, Camp set a standard that future tax reform plans will have to meet if they are to pass the credibility test.