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House Tax Overhaul Process Divides Parties

Lost in the shuffle of House and Senate votes on the dueling Bush and Obama tax plans just before the August recess was a House vote on a bill to establish a process for considering comprehensive tax legislation next year. Congress is so accustomed to kicking the can down the road that it is at a loss over what to call an anticipatory can-catch (catch-as-can-can?).

No one realistically expected Congress to tackle a tax overhaul this year except, perhaps, as a puzzle piece to be shaped and fitted later as part of a grand budget bargain to avoid sequestration. That bit of sorcery would have left officials at the Congressional Budget Office scoring table scratching their heads, if only for a moment.

But that’s apparently not what the House had in mind when it voted 232-189 on Aug. 2 to pass the Pathway to Job Creation Through a Simpler, Fairer Tax Code Act. The bill’s authors, Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) and Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), should at least be commended for not trying to create another clever acronym for their bill’s title. (You try to pronounce PJCTSFTCA.)

In a joint press release, the sponsors explained their purpose was to establish “expedited procedures” that “will enable lawmakers in both the House and Senate to overcome multiple technical hurdles that often cause bills to languish during the legislative process.”

Under the bill, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee would be required to introduce a tax overhaul bill by April 30, 2013. The committee would have 20 calendar days to report it or it would be discharged. If the bill is not called up by adoption of a special rule from the Rules Committee within 15 legislative days, it would be privileged for consideration under an open amendment process. If, on the other hand, the Rules Committee acts first, it could still bar or limit floor amendments.

Once passed by the House, the bill would go to the Senate Finance Committee, which would have 15 calendar days to report, or it would be discharged. A motion to proceed to floor consideration would not be debatable (i.e., subject to filibuster). Amendments would have to be germane and would also be filibuster-proof by being limited to two hours of debate each. There would be no limit on total debate time in the Senate, meaning a cloture motion might still be required to bring the measure to a final vote. However, motions to agree to a conference in the Senate, or request one, and to appoint conferees, would be automatically agreed to (self-executed).

The House effort to impose new rules on the Senate was a bold move because both chambers resent the other messing with its rules. Put another way, the bill as written doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in the Senate Cloakroom microwave. So, what did House Republicans hope to gain by passing it?

For one thing, the House GOP provided fodder for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) pledge to change Senate rules on the opening day of the next Congress to do away with filibusters on motions to proceed to the consideration of any bill. The House bill not only bars a filibuster against considering the tax reform bill in the Senate but goes much further by providing for automatically going to conference on the bill and appointing conferees – motions now subject to filibuster.

While Dreier and Camp probably did not intend to lend moral support to Reid’s crusade, their press statement nevertheless reflects a growing frustration in the House over its bills going nowhere in the Senate.

The hasty scheduling of the tax process bill, without hearings or Senate coordination, is obviously geared to the fall election campaigns and Republican efforts to draw a connection between reducing the complexity of the tax code and creating jobs.

Moreover, the bill establishes certain criteria for a tax overhaul that also reflect Republican themes. For the bill to qualify for consideration under expedited procedures, it must: reduce the number of individual tax brackets from six to two with rates of 10 percent and not more than 25 percent; reduce the corporate tax rate to not more than 25 percent; repeal the alternative minimum tax; and broaden the tax base to maintain revenues of 18 percent to 19 percent of the gross domestic product.

House Democrats countered with a substitute set of principles: distribute the tax burden in a more progressive manner that would increase revenue significantly; spend more on infrastructure, education, research and defense; and preserve tax incentives for middle-class home ownership, education, retirement savings and health care.

Not surprisingly, no Republicans voted for the Democratic substitute and no Democrats voted for the Republican bill. The bright lines drawn between the parties become slogans on banners held high by sparring partisans marching to battle – their fall campaign frippery flapping.

Don Wolfensberger is a senior scholar at  the Woodrow Wilson Center, a resident scholar with the Bipartisan Policy Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.