Lawmakers Should Oppose "Revenue-Neutral" Tax Reform



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Some members of Congress are pushing ahead (or at least creating the appearance that they are pushing ahead) with tax reform without addressing the most important issue of the debate: revenue. As we have pointed out before, the $975 billion in tax increases called for in the recent Senate budget resolution would not even raise revenue high enough to fund the level of spending that Ronald Reagan presided over. To discuss addressing the tax code without raising any new revenue at all is simply absurd. 

Lack of Attention to Revenue in House and Senate

In the Ways and Means Committee, the tax-writing committee in the House of Representatives, Republican chairman Dave Camp has made clear that he wants tax reform to be “revenue-neutral,” meaning loopholes and tax expenditures (subsidies provided through the tax code) may be reduced, but the revenue savings would all be used to offset the cost of reducing tax rates.

Camp split his committee members into working groups that spent several weeks focused on various tax issues and receiving comments from interested parties (dominated as usual by big business). The Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) just published an enormous report summarizing different facets of the tax system and summarizing the comments and suggestions submitted to these working groups. The suggestions include everything imaginable, from reducing the tax expenditure for capital gains to boosting the tax expenditure for capital gains, from ending “deferral” of taxes on offshore corporate profits to exempting those profits completely with a territorial system.

But almost none of the suggestions summarized in the report actually touch upon the biggest question facing anyone trying to overhaul a tax system: How much revenue should we collect?

Meanwhile, Senator Max Baucus, the chairman of the Finance Committee, the tax-writing committee in the Senate, seems to believe that he can carry out a debate over tax reform without actually addressing how much revenue should be collected. A CTJ op-ed published last month criticized Baucus’s approach. We noted that

Democratic and Republican tax-writers are holding bipartisan talks to craft a tax reform bill, even though there is no agreement between the parties on what the basic goals of such reform ought to be. One party recognizes a need for more revenue while another has pledged to not raise more revenue. This would be like holding bipartisan talks on immigration reform — if one party supported a path to citizenship while the other party pledged to round up all undocumented immigrants and deport them without exceptions…

Some more recent comments from Senator Baucus have indicated that he at least might try to get some revenue from tax reform. He recently said during a hearing,

“We will close billions of dollars of loopholes. Some of this revenue should be used to cut taxes for America’s families and help our businesses create jobs, and some of the revenue raised in tax reform should also be used to reduce the deficit,” Baucus said. “It’s all about finding common ground.”

We’d feel better if Senator Baucus acknowledged that raising revenue should be the main purpose of tax reform because our most pressing need is revenue to fund public investments.

Deficit-Neutral Tax Reform Has No Place in a Plan to Address the Deficit

The most ridiculous idea aired recently is for Congressional Republicans to demand revenue-neutral tax reform in return for agreeing to President Obama’s request that the federal debt ceiling be raised.

The last time the Republican majority in the House of Representatives agreed to pleas of President Obama and the Senate to raise the debt ceiling, they demanded that the deficit be reduced by the sequestration that is in effect today. No revenue was raised in that deal.

Now, some Republican lawmakers are discussing extracting a different concession: an agreement that would provide a fast-track process to enact tax reform. But the tax reform they propose would be revenue-neutral (meaning it would be deficit-neutral). There is simply no logical connection between the deficits that require us to raise the debt ceiling and a tax reform that would do nothing to reduce those deficits.

Will “Dynamic Scoring” Paper Over the Revenue Question?

Some lawmakers have tried to confuse the debate by arguing that Congress should enact a tax reform that is revenue-neutral according to the revenue-scoring methods officially used by Congress but revenue-positive if Congress switches to a different method that they claim is more accurate. This method is known as “dynamic scoring,” which assumes that reducing tax rates increases incomes and profits so dramatically that the additional tax collected on the new income and profits would partially offset (or more than offset) the revenue lost as a result of the rate reduction. In other words, a tax cut (because it causes the economy to expand) could pay for itself or even raise revenue.

There is no evidence that the money channeled into the economy by reductions in tax rates expands the economy in this way. But even if we all agreed that it did, that would logically require us to agree that spending cuts could suck enough money out of the economy to have the opposite effect. But Chairman Camp and his colleagues support the spending cuts in the Ryan budget and would never want to admit that spending cuts have macroeconomic effects that blunt or even reverse any deficit-reduction that these lawmakers are trying to accomplish.

Members of Congress have a serious disagreement over revenue, and they can’t paper over it by using the gimmick of “dynamic scoring.” There is only one real resolution, and that’s to acknowledge a need for tax increases.

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