The Tax Extenders: Yes, Virginia, They Really Are Tax Cuts
The other day, the House Ways & Means Committee voted to cut taxes for certain businesses by $310 billion. Washington, being Washington, is now in the midst of a partisan debate over whether this is in fact a tax cut or, conversely, whether failing to cut those business levies would be a tax increase.
This really isn’t complicated. The Ways & Means bill is a tax cut. And if it is not offset by other tax hikes or spending increases, it would raise the federal deficit by $310 billion over the next 10 years.
At issue, of course, are some of the 50+ targeted tax subsidies that have been on the books for many years but expired last December. The operative word here is “expired.”
These provisions have come to be known around the Capitol as the “extenders.” This is because Congress has a long and ignominious history of passing these as temporary tax cuts, knowing full well that it will then repeatedly extend them for a year or two at a time.
Somehow, they seem to operate under a different set of rules than most laws. While Congress argues for months over whether or not to offset the costs of some bills (extending certain unemployment benefits, for example), pols seem happy to maintain the perpetual motion machine of the tax extenders without worrying about their cost.
Sometimes, lawmakers have found offsetting tax hikes to pay for these cuts. Often they have not. The Ways & Means bill, which would make six of the now-expired provisions permanent, does not trouble itself with offsets. Thus, the measure would add the aforesaid $310 billion to the deficit over the next 10 years.
Similarly, the Senate Finance Committee has voted to restore all of the expired provisions through 2015—and it hasn’t paid for them either.
But temporary or permanent, are they tax cuts? And if Congress leaves them moldering in their policy graves, is that a tax increase?
Not surprisingly, groups like Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform think so. In a Tuesday press release, the group said, “The permanent tax relief is targeted to prevent the worst anti-growth tax hikes from taking effect for good.”
We can argue about whether the better pro-growth policy is to restore them or leave them for dead, but not about whether Congress should pay for them.
Oh, you say, we are heading into one of those mind-numbing budget baseline arguments that bedeviled the debate over the fiscal cliff a couple of years ago. It got so bad that my Tax Policy Center colleagues modeled all tax proposals twice—against current law (where extenders die as scheduled) and against current policy (which assumes expiring tax cuts are extended).
But there is no baseline problem with these business provisions. They expired four months ago. They no longer exist. Congress can call them extenders if it wants, but at the moment there is nothing to extend. They are off the books. They must be passed as new law.
As an issue of budget scoring, none of this maters. Under Congress’s own pay-as-you-go rules, these tax cuts should have been paid for even if they were extended before they expired. But we are talking politics here.
In the often-Orwellian world of Washington, the words matter because they frame the argument for and against paying for the provisions. After all, if all you are doing is merely extending current law, you can at least claim there is nothing to pay for. If, by contrast, you are passing new tax cuts, it’s a lot harder to make that case with a straight face.
I’ve argued that walking away from many of the now-expired tax cuts is the better pro-growth policy. But even if Congress prefers to restore them, it should still find the money to pay for them.
This all reminds me of the old vaudeville routine. “Call me a cab,” says the first comic. “OK, you’re a cab,” replies the second.
Ba-da-boom. Bring on the dancing dogs.
We laugh at the stupid old joke because we know the comic isn’t a cab. His partner may say he is, three times a night, six nights a week. But that doesn’t make him a taxi.
And no matter how much supporters of these tax cuts say it, these provisions don’t preserve the status quo. And leaving them expired is not a tax hike. They are a tax cut. And they should be paid for.