Coburn is given new platform to battle special tax breaks

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a leading proponent of ending tax expenditures, will join the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Taxation, IRS Oversight and Long Term Growth, signaling that GOP senators may be moving toward closing some tax loopholes. 

In his “Back in Black” deficit-reduction plan, Coburn proposed reducing the federal debt by nearly $1 trillion over 10 years by closing a variety of special corporate tax breaks. The nation would save $1 billion, for example, by ending tax breaks for Hollywood movie producers.

Coburn’s stance on ending special tax breaks has sparked a war with Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist argues that any legislation that increases taxpayers’ net tax burden violates his Taxpayer Protection Pledge.

Coburn will have the chance to advance his vision for tax reform as the newest member of the subcommittee. He takes the slot left vacant by the resignation of former Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.).

“[Senator] Coburn looks forward to advancing the agenda he outlined in his $9 trillion deficit-reduction plan,” Coburn spokesman John Hart said.

Senate GOP aides predicted that Coburn will be “a very active member of the panel.”

The appointment could be a headache for special interest groups that wish to preserve special tax breaks, such as the ethanol tax subsidy that Coburn fought to eliminate earlier this year.

Norquist said he was not worried that Coburns new assignment would increase the likelihood of eliminating certain tax breaks. 

“Having Coburn bother the IRS is a good idea,” Norquist said. “His lapses in judgment on raising taxes will not be affected from that subcommittee.

“That subcommittee will not be raising any taxes. It will be making sure the IRS is less abusive with people. Hell be a bulldog with the IRS.”

The Finance panel’s subcommittees have not been hotbeds of activity in recent years, but that could change with Coburn onboard. He has been known to flex his oversight authority, and GOP aides expect him to investigate the IRS vigorously.

As ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on Investigations, Coburn highlighted scores of what he called wasteful federal stimulus projects. Working with subcommittee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), he aggressively investigated the role of investment banks in causing the 2008 financial crisis.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), the ranking Republican on the Finance panel, lauded Coburn’s selection.

“Senator Hatch believes [Senator] Coburn will be an able partner on the Taxation and IRS Oversight subcommittee, helping to root out waste, fraud and abuse at the IRS and fighting to advance a pro-growth agenda that will strengthen the economy and help put Americans back to work," Hatch spokeswoman Julia Lawless said.

Lawless added that Hatch and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) “work together to establish the committee’s subcommittees and membership.”

Coburn introduced his $9 trillion deficit-reduction plan last month. He said it “immediately ends dozens of special interest giveaways and eliminates spending through [the] tax code, which will generate revenue, but without increasing tax rates.”

Coburn was also a member of the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Six, which last month announced a deficit-reduction framework that would raise about $1 trillion in new revenues by closing niche tax breaks.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) left Coburn off the supercommittee tasked with assembling a $1.5 trillion deficit-reduction package by Nov. 23. Hatch predicted, however, that the Finance Committee will play a significant role in developing and implementing the supercommittee’s recommendations.

Hatch’s appointment of Coburn to the tax subcommittee is a bit of a surprise because Hatch has opposed closing special tax breaks as a way to reduce the federal deficit.

Updated at 6:16 p.m.