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Rep. Chris Van Hollen Pushing for Tax Reform

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a member of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, says he is working to compile a list of possible changes to the tax code that might draw bipartisan support in the debate on the deficit reduction.

Of course, Van Hollen is not operating off script. Democrats have been pushing for many of the same goals that President Barack Obama has championed since August — increasing revenues from wealthy households, implementing the “Buffett rule” to ensure that millionaires do not pay lower tax rates than middle-class Americans and countering the GOP argument that lower-class families do not pay enough taxes because they do not contribute to federal income tax. Republicans, on the other hand, are reluctant to make any changes that would increase taxes at all, but some have expressed openness to revenue-neutral tax reform.

Outside the negotiating room, pressure continues to mount on the 12 bipartisan, bicameral lawmakers charged with finding at least $1.2 trillion in savings over the next decade. Late last week, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a traditionally conservative coalition, sent letters to super committee members.

“Put simply, Congress must reform entitlement programs and comprehensively restructure the U.S. tax code,” the letter said, which was also signed by 151 local and state chambers of commerce.

Even Van Hollen conceded that the panel may not be able to reach consensus. After all, even the Bowles-Simpson group fell short of the votes needed to approve its framework. But lawmakers who voted for that deficit reduction plan continue to publicly champion the tax code reform proposals — which could be indicative of future expanded support.

Since the creation of the super committee in August’s deal to raise the debt ceiling, lawmakers of both parties have said their work this fall has been made easier by the blueprints created by other working groups, from Bowles-Simpson to the Senate’s bipartisan “gang of six.” In the Bowles-Simpson recommendations made last winter, the panel essentially suggested blowing up the tax code and eliminating all but a handful of popular tax deductions.

Van Hollen said he is not endorsing specifics of the Bowles-Simpson plan or capping tax expenditures at 4 percent of the gross domestic product — like former Reagan chief economic adviser Martin Feldstein recently suggested in the Wall Street Journal —  but he believes enough bipartisan coalitions have supported such tax code reform, including Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Dan Coats (R-Ind.), that it “could provide room for finding common ground.”

Van Hollen is pushing an overall cap on the amount of deductions, instead of the wholesale elimination that the Bowles-Simpson group recommended. He said he thinks the panel could implement tax code reform without changing the marginal tax rate by instead addressing the discrepancies in deductions — a concession that he said could be key to gaining Republican support.

Four current super committee members — Camp, Baucus, Co-Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) — also served on the Bowles-Simpson commission, but all voted against it.

For his part, Baucus has used public hearings to openly highlight the complicated questions facing the panel if it wants to push forward with tax code reform, questions that underscore the challenge in enacting politically difficult reforms in a matter of weeks. He mentioned costly tax changes to the alternative minimum tax and the Medicare “doc fix” as issues that would need to be addressed.

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