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Tax Reform Too Complicated for Debt Panel Time Frame

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Former Sens. Connie Mack III (left) and John Breaux led a commission that wrote a 2005 tax reform report, but it went nowhere. Experts say this year’s super committee likely won’t have time to pass substantive tax reform by its Nov. 23 deadline.

Daunted by partisan gridlock, a short deadline and sheer logistical magnitude, members of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction and Congressional leaders are coming to grips with the fact that any wide-scale tax reform will need to be punted to a legislative vehicle that couldn’t be considered until months after the super committee’s deadline.

“The joint committee could agree on a framework — rules that would guide the process — that would pass the House and Senate as part of their deficit reduction package. Ways and Means and Senate Finance would then write the bill,” a GOP leadership aide said.

The plan is far enough along that Senate Democrats are already concerned about whether Republicans could find a way to avoid the issue of increasing tax revenues in the deficit panel by pushing that part of any deal to the second round.

“Democrats are fully on board with tax reform that lowers rates, simplifies the tax code, closes loopholes and improves the economy, but we will not allow this to become just another attempt by Republicans to weasel out of including revenues in a balanced deficit reduction package,” a Senate Democratic aide said.

The idea is not completely unexpected, but it does show that members of the debt panel are starting to realize the scope of what is required of them under what, at least historically, is a shockingly short deadline.

“It’s like getting assigned your Ph.D. dissertation and being told you have six weeks to do it,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

In his speech to the Economic Club of Washington last week, Speaker John Boehner conceded, “It’s probably not realistic to think the joint committee could rewrite the tax code by Nov. 23.”

But the Ohio Republican said the panel can “lay the groundwork” for tax reform.

In private briefings with members of the super committee, both the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office have explained that doing tax reform in the short lifespan of the debt panel is essentially impossible, saying that the difficulty of the process and time spent scoring various provisions will require more time than the debt panel has.

There are many problems, experts say.

For instance, changing tax provisions on one sector of the economy will have effects throughout that sector and into other sectors. The breadth of change prompts an emphasis on treading carefully.

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