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A Tax Bill in Plain English? Senate Finance Committee Is Already There

Panel has an unusual history of forgoing legislative language for simple terminology

Former Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona, right, and Max Baucus of Montana were among the Finance Committee members who once debated whether to conduct committee business in plain English or legalese. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona, right, and Max Baucus of Montana were among the Finance Committee members who once debated whether to conduct committee business in plain English or legalese. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Anyone looking for legislative text of the Senate’s tax code overhaul this week will be sorely disappointed.

But it should be no surprise, because unlike the rest of Congress — including their counterparts on the House Ways and Means Committee — members of the Senate Finance panel conduct their business in plain English. The conversion to legislative text takes place on the way to the floor.

The longstanding practice was a matter of debate back when the committee, then led by Montana Democrat Max Baucus, went through its 2009 markup of the health care overhaul.

Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning sought to require that before the Finance  panel could vote on the bill to be reported to the floor, legislative language be available for 72 hours.

“One of the reasons that this committee uses conceptual language in some of its bills is because we deal with the IRS code,” said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican whip at the time. “It is very difficult to continually change [or] amend provisions of the IRS code with tables and so on, and easier for us to discuss those kinds of things in conceptual language.”

Kyl’s comments came during a September 2009 debate of Bunning’s proposal to mandate the use of bill text.

Sen. Kent Conrad, the North Dakota Democrat who was chairman of the Budget Committee at the time, had the biggest stemwinder of an explanation for the practice, although the crux of the argument matched what Kyl had said.

Who’s Getting to Write the Tax Bill

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Conrad explained that when he first joined the panel, he met with the previous occupant of the committee seat, Democrat Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, who had left the Senate to become Treasury secretary at the start of the Clinton administration.

“I said to him in the course of the conversation, ‘Mr. Secretary, why does the Finance Committee … work from conceptual language, language that is in plain English, rather than legal language?’ Because every other committee I had served on operated on the basis of legislative language,” Conrad recalled. “He said, ‘We made that change years ago because we concluded that for the members to make decisions that were fully knowledgeable, they needed, in plain English, what the effect of the legislation is.”

As was the case with the health care debate, next week’s work at the Finance Committee on a tax code overhaul might actually be easier to follow than this week’s proceedings at the House Ways and Means Committee, where members have sparred over amendments written in legislative language seemingly appearing out of nowhere.

That is part and parcel of why Senate tax writers have rejected attempts to change the way they do business, including Bunning’s during the 2009 debate.

“Anybody who thinks that is going to be transparent to the American people is really not telling it like it is. You read the legal language of this committee, there is not 5 percent of the American people who would understand what it means. That is the fundamental reason this committee deals with plain English so that the members can understand, so the American people can understand,” Conrad said at the time.

Baucus was perhaps even more blunt at one point in responding to Kyl while making the case against marking up the health care bill using legislative text.

“If it is conceptual language, we have a better idea what we are talking about. We may not know all that we are talking about, but at least it is a better idea of what we are talking about. It helps the spirit of comity. It helps develop trust,” he said. “We see the language that we think we understand. It is in English.”

The committee, now led by Republican Chairman Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, is set to unveil its legislative proposal at the conclusion of the House Ways and Means markup.

That could be as early as Thursday, in plain English. 

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