Everything should be on the table in tax reform debate

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Consider the case of two neighbors who earn the exact same personal income. The first neighbor itemizes his deductions and takes advantage of numerous credits. He ends up paying far less than the second neighbor, who only took the standard deduction and a minimal amount of credits. Upon learning what the other paid last year in taxes, the first probably wonders if he interpreted the code wrong and claimed too much. The second probably wonders if he claimed too little because he didn't understand the code well enough. What does it say about our tax code when it leaves you feeling like a crook on the one hand, or a sucker on the other?

It’s my hope that, once the votes are counted and a new Congress assembles, members of both parties will stop exaggerating policy differences where a basis for common ground exists. Maybe we don't see eye-to-eye on exactly what taxes rates should be, or how many brackets are necessary, but let's start from the agreement that the tax code is unfair and too darned complicated.

The root cause of our "crook or sucker" dilemma is that our tax code has become larded up with a mind-numbing array of special tax provisions, most favoring a narrow constituency to the disadvantage of all other Americans. This same phenomenon plays a large role in helping CEOs pay a lower effective rate than their secretaries. So why bicker now about whether to raise or lower rates when we can agree that our code has become complicated with too many deductions and credits?

This is the common ground from which a comprehensive overhaul of our tax code should begin in the next year. Not only is this fertile ground for genuine reform, but there are other benefits to eliminating many of these special interest tax earmarks/carve-outs/loopholes/whatever you want to style them as.

For starters, it doesn't matter if you think Washington needs to raise tax rates or cut more spending, the ledger book paints a pretty black-and-white picture: Our expenditures exceed our revenues. Eliminating many of these provisions will necessarily broaden the tax base and close the gap between expenditures and revenues without rate hikes or spending reductions.

Let's also note that simplifying our code makes tax compliance a lot easier, and less costly. Every dollar a business or individual can save on compliance costs is another dollar that can be invested back into the economy. 

Similarly, simplification would bring predictability to future tax bills, thereby restoring some certainty to a marketplace that desperately needs it. Together, lower compliance costs and greater economic certainty will lead to economic growth and creation of more taxpayers--two keys to closing the expenditure-revenue gap that are often lost in the debate about taxes and spending.

Policymakers should hear from those who argue for retaining current provisions, but everything should be on the table. Meanwhile, we should keep in mind that our nation is in a global competition for jobs; therefore, due attention should be paid to ensuring that U.S. tax rates are set at levels which will allow our employers to compete for jobs and grow middle-class incomes. Again, on this Americans should be able to agree.

Of course, even under the best scenario, tax reform will not be easy.  We know that individuals and employers will have differing priorities and divergent opinions. But it is well within our reach, and Congress must prepare now so that we can quickly get to work when a new Congress assembles early next year.

Smarter tax policy is essential to job creation, income growth, and putting our country on sound fiscal footing.  Campaign season will be over before long.  While many differences will be highlighted over the coming month, we can all agree that the American people deserve bipartisan tax relief.

Young is a member of the House Budget Committee.