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Nuts & Bolts

June 12, 2013

Congressional inexperience may be biggest hurdle to tax code rewrite

WASHINGTON — As lawmakers rewrite the 4,000-page U.S. Internal Revenue Code, the complexities of Congress - not just the tax code - may present some of the biggest hurdles.

              

Lobbyists and lawmakers working on tax legislation point to a relative lack of experience among officials and their staffs - particularly among House Republicans - in drafting, debating, and voting on major pieces of tax legislation.

              

That may make tax reform more difficult, Bloomberg BNA reported. Add the migration of power from House committees to a small number of majority-party leaders in recent years, and the odds of passing tax reform appear longer still.

              

"Whenever I hear about tax reform, I get very skeptical about it," said retired representative Lee Hamilton, a Democrat from Indiana who is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University.

              

Of lobbyists, officials and former lawmakers, and tax- writing staff members interviewed by BNA, none predicted that the challenges would derail reform. Several agreed the task will be tougher based on the realities of crafting such a complicated bill. Votes in committee alone could take days, testing the patience and knowledge of staff and lawmakers.

              

Leaders of the tax-writing committees say they're committed to the process, which could simplify tax returns for individuals and companies, reduce tax rates and possibly raise revenue to lower the federal budget deficit.

              

Several lobbyists and others pointed to the Affordable Care Act of 2010 - when Democrats were in the majority - as the last time the Ways and Means Committee took on such a major bill. What used to be six or seven significant tax markups in a year has dwindled to one or two, a former senior staff member on the committee told BNA.

              

That makes cooperation among the two tax-writing committees and the White House more critical, Capitol Hill veterans said. While the public favors overhaul, the idea can only advance with bipartisan leadership, Hamilton said. That's assuming Republican Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan and Democratic Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana convince the White House to support it.

              

Tax-writing committees on both sides of the Capitol have lost key staffers, as well as some senior lawmakers. Of the 17 Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee in 2007-2008, 10 are no longer in Congress; one, Rep. Eric Cantor, is the House majority leader.

              

The Ways and Means Committee's staff director, Jonathan Traub, left in 2012 for Deloitte Tax. In the Senate, Jeff VanderWolk, the Finance Committee's international tax counsel, left in June for Washington Council Ernst & Young.

              

Some of the deepest experience lies on the minority side in each chamber. In the Senate, Mark Prater remains as chief Republican tax counsel on the Finance Committee, where he has worked for more than 20 years. In the House, lawmakers such as Charles Rangel of New York and ranking Democrat Sander Levin of Michigan were members during the last major tax code overhaul in 1986. Janice Mays, Democratic tax counsel, has worked with the committee since the 1970s and helped write the 1986 reform.

              

Lawmakers downplayed any shortage of experience, although Rep. John Larson, a Democrat who is a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, said he is concerned about the lack of "regular order" - committee action, House-Senate conference committees and traditional features of legislation that have fallen out of favor but help foster bipartisanship.

              

Regular order presents its own challenges, a former senior committee staff member said. Those include such "traffic cop" questions as how to handle amendments, whether votes should be rolled together to save time and how closely the committee sticks to the predicted time of votes during the markup, all of which works better with experienced staff.

              

In the past, markups have been preceded by staff work at least a day ahead, he said. During the health care debate, he said, Republican staff lined up which lawmakers would offer which amendments and assigned backup duty to others, knowing they would probably lose most votes but wanting to make sure points were heard.

              

People monitoring and working on tax reform generally agreed that the committees have lost staff experience. Still, Traub said the staff of the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation remains a wealth of expertise.

              

And both tax-writing committees have put considerable work into examining policy in preparation for reform. The Ways and Means Committee convened working groups to examine particular sections of the code, and the Finance Committee has undertaken similar work and produced a weekly series of options papers on potential changes.

              

"Our staff is very, very knowledgeable of tax policy, they're very engaged with members, and we have a very free flow of communication," Representative Charles Boustany, a Republican from Louisiana who is on the Ways and Means Committee. "I think that's going to facilitate a markup."



 

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