Paul Ryan has a lot of questions to answer when it comes to tax reform
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At a town hall meeting in Wisconsin this week, House Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanThe Hill Interview: Budget Chair Black sticks around for now Gun proposal picks up GOP support GOP lawmaker Tim Murphy to retire at end of term MORE predicted that major tax reform will be easier to pass than the healthcare reform bill that stalled in the Senate before the August recess. Will that optimism from a top congressional leader mean tax reform legislation will pass Congress and be signed into law by the president before the end of the year?

The odds are against it. Tax reform faces different obstacles than those that plagued the healthcare reform effort, but those hurdles may prove just as difficult to overcome. Yes, the tax reform push has several virtues that the healthcare push lacked, including serious thinking in Congress over the years, which has led to a set of relatively clear principles, unlike healthcare reform.

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The cooperation and information exchange between Republicans in Congress and the executive branch seems much better than on healthcare reform. Tax reform, and particularly tax cuts, will prove much more understandable and popular with voters than the incomprehensible nuances of healthcare reform.

 

Unlike the healthcare push, it is possible that some Democrats, especially in the Senate, may cooperate with Republicans on a tax reform plan. So at first blush, tax policymakers appear to have a clearer field ahead. However, reality shows that tax reform faces serious challenges, foremost among them the legislative process in the Senate. There are some big questions ahead for the tax plan.

Will the tax plan be bipartisan or will the GOP try to invent a way to use the reconciliation process, which is a fast track procedure to avoid a Senate filibuster, despite the apparent inability to devise a budget resolution for fiscal 2018? (Under current practice, without a budget resolution conference report passed in both chambers, no reconciliation instructions exist.)

Will the tax plan be deficit neutral or turn out to be primarily a tax cut, perhaps drawing fire from the remaining deficit hawks? If the tax plan is to be deficit neutral, what tax loopholes can Congress agree to eliminate? The state and local tax deduction, modifications to the mortgage interest deduction, and dozens of other tax expenditures have strong supporters with substantial political strength.

Will reality demand an increase in taxes on the highest earners, both in order to sell the plan to voters and to increase revenue to offset tax cuts? Will Congress devise a repatriation plan that lets huge profits held overseas by many American companies return to the United States with a tax rate lower than the present rate?

How will individual and corporate tax rates be linked so that small businesses are treated fairly? Finally, and least predictable, will President Trump be able to focus his energy on selling the tax plan to Americans, avoiding the off-topic controversies that have detracted from earlier initiatives?

Discussing legislative process may not seem very exciting, but it is well to remember the words of master policymaker, former House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), who said something to the effect of, “If you let me write the process and I let you write the policy, I will beat you every time.”

A procedural road leading to tax reform is simple. Pass a budget resolution conference report that contains reconciliation instructions to the relevant committees. Have those committees report out their recommendations. Have the budget committees gather all those recommendations into an omnibus reconciliation bill. Send the reconciliation bill to the floor, protected from filibuster in the Senate, and pass the bill.

Get a conference report on the bill. Pass the conference report. Send to the president for signature. That sounds so straightforward. And it has a history of being the successful path taken for fiscal policy since 1981. Now the very first step is for the House and Senate budget committees to pass budget resolutions.

So far, little progress seems evident in that effort. Without reconciliation, Republicans will need the help of Democrats in the Senate to get a tax plan passed. Would such a bipartisan plan satisfy House Freedom Caucus members? If not, then what? Speaker Ryan’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, tax reform faces just as many challenges as healthcare reform did.

Steve Bell is a senior advisor at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former staff director of the Senate Budget Committee.


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