Tax writers promise 50 years of secrecy for senators' suggestions

The Senate’s top tax writers have promised their colleagues 50 years worth of secrecy in exchange for suggestions on what deductions and credits to preserve in tax reform.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), assured lawmakers that any submission they receive will be kept under lock and key by the committee and the National Archives until the end of 2064.

Deeming the submissions confidential, the Senate’s top tax writers have said only certain staff members — 10 in all — will get direct access to a senator’s written suggestions. Each submission will also be given its own ID number and be kept on password-protected servers, with printed versions kept in locked safes.

The promise of confidentiality was revealed just two days before the deadline for senators to participate in the Finance Committee’s “blank slate” process, which puts the onus on lawmakers to argue for what credits and deductions should be kept in a streamlined tax code.

A Finance Committee aide said Baucus and Hatch were trying to prove to colleagues that they were making secrecy a priority. Officials on the panel circulated the news to senators in a memo that was dated last Friday.

“The letter was done at the request of offices to provide some assurance that the committee would not make their submissions public,” the aide said. “Sens. Baucus and Hatch are going out of their way to assure their colleagues they will keep the submissions in confidence.”

Keeping the submissions confidential for a half century, the aide added, was “standard operating procedure for sensitive materials, including investigation materials.”

The lengths Baucus and Hatch have gone to reassure their colleagues underscores the importance the tax writers are placing on the blank-slate plan, and it shows they are working hard to ensure that all 100 senators engage in the process.

Baucus told The Hill he fully expects more senators to participate in writing because of the secrecy guarantee.

“Several senators have said to me how important that is to them,” Baucus said. “It’s quite significant.”

It also illustrates the enormous pressure being brought to bear by K Street lobbyists, who are working furiously to protect their clients and the tax provisions that benefit them.

The move raises the stakes for Baucus and Hatch, who stand to lose credibility if the submissions start to leak out despite their vow to keep them in the vault.

Baucus announced this week that the Finance panel would mark up a tax reform bill this fall, after he has a chance during the August recess to consider his colleagues’ submissions. He suggested that the senators who take part in the blank-slate process would have greater influence.

From the start of the process, senators have expressed concerns that Baucus and Hatch wouldn’t be able to keep their proposals private. Given the enormous amount of money on the line — more than $1 trillion a year in tax expenditures are up for possible elimination — blowback from interest groups and businesses could easily derail the process. 

The blank slate, some senators argue, forces them to choose sides on tax breaks that can have fervent backers back home and make them appear to be favoring special interests. 

Hatch stressed that he still expects a fair number of GOP senators to give him oral suggestions, and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) told The Hill that he thought all Republicans would decide against putting ideas down on paper.

“We’re getting a lot of input regardless,” Hatch said. “All I want is input. I don’t care how they do it, whether it’s in writing or whether it’s personally.”

Under the confidential procedures set by the Finance panel, other committee staffers will only be allowed to handle senators’ suggestions if supervised by at least of the 10 authorized staffers.

Both the Democratic and Republican sides will receive a copy of a submission, and authorized staffers are supposed to log when copies of those proposals are made, who made them and how many.

The submissions can be released publicly, the memo says, if they’re scrubbed of any way of identifying the senator behind them.

But the confidentiality agreement might not be enough to get some senators off the sidelines.

Many have questioned whether it makes sense to move forward on the blank-slate approach when Democrats and Republicans have yet to resolve their long-standing differences about revenue.

While Republicans want the additional revenue from a simplified code to be used solely for lowering tax rates, Democrats want some of the windfall to go toward paying down the deficit. 

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) stressed that he didn’t think any leaks would come out of the committee, even as he said he didn’t think it would have much impact on what senators actually write.

“If anything comes out, it’s certainly not going to be attributable to the leadership of the committee or the staff,” Cardin said. “It’ll be some other way it comes out, which is always possible.”

Still, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who said that all Republicans were meeting one-on-one with Hatch, added that the two top tax writers were taking a chance.

“I think that, unfortunately for them, people around here tend to believe that anything in Washington — there are no secrets,” Thune said. “But they’re doing their best.”

“That should be somewhat reassuring,” Thune added. “I think people will feel a little bit more freedom.”

— Updated at 8:36 p.m.