K Street in the dark about tax reform plans

The House’s top tax writer has successfully kept the hard details about his plan to overhaul the tax code away from the prying eyes of lobbyists and advocacy groups.

K Street officials say they don’t remember anyone having as much success as Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) in keeping the text of a major initiative close to the vest — something they chalk up to both Camp’s desire for secrecy and the respect he has from committee members.

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“It would be lovely to have a sneak look at it,” Jade West of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (NAW) said of Camp’s tax reform draft. “You’ve got to give Chairman Camp credit. He’s maintained remarkable discipline.”

Camp has gone to great lengths to keep his legislative proposal in-house. He has kept congressional aides out of tax reform meetings, and even limited the information that committee members are allowed to keep.

“You hear a new rumor every day,” said Ryan Donovan, senior vice president for legislative affairs for the Credit Union National Association (CUNA). “Even if someone told us what’s in it, I’m not sure we’d have a lot of confidence in that until we saw it on paper.”

“I wish that I knew,” Donovan added. “But even if I thought I knew, I’m not sure how much confidence you should have in it, because we’ve seen nothing.”

While the discipline instilled by Camp into the process is remarkable, it also illustrates that his problems in marking up a tax reform bill this year aren’t limited to the halls of Congress.

Camp has already backed off his vow to push an overhaul through his committee this year, as House GOP leaders look to keep the focus on the disastrous rollout of President Obama’s healthcare reform law.

But the Ways and Means chairman will almost certainly need the backing of business groups — many of whom have made tax reform a top priority — to get any bill to president’s desk before the end of 2014.

Camp stepped up his outreach on Monday by addressing members of the Coalition for Fair Effective Tax Rates and other groups on a conference call.

The chairman implored supporters to help him with the “next phase” of tax reform, according to someone on the call, which will include outreach to members outside the committee. Later during the call, a Camp aide said the chairman’s draft could be released in either December or January.

Major business groups say they’re going to need to see more than just broad outlines of what Camp’s seeking to do before they get behind his efforts.

“Obviously, everybody would like to know exactly what’s going on in the process,” said Chris Whitcomb, tax counsel for the National Federation of Independent Business. “Once we know for certain what the timing is and what the intentions are for Chairman Camp ... I think that should give us a better idea if we should be optimistic or not.”

“It’s just hard to see the path forward until we get the clarity from that sort of introduction,” Whitcomb added.

For other groups, the details right now are secondary. Retailers, for instance, pay a higher than average effective tax rate when compared to other sectors, and are more focused on reducing tax rates than preserving incentives.

“Yes, we totally understand that people say devil’s in the details, and we haven’t seen the details,” said Rachelle Bernstein of the National Retail Federation. “We will be doing anything we can to help tax reform happen as expeditiously as possible.”

Camp said last week that while he remains committed to marking up a bill this year, missing the deadline wouldn’t be the death knell for tax reform.

“It wouldn’t be so bad,” the chairman told reporters on Friday. “Just because the calendar hits 12/31 doesn’t change the need for comprehensive tax reform that grows our economy and creates jobs.”

Camp and other top Republicans on Ways and Means say they still have to make a concerted effort to educate the party rank-and-file on tax reform, even as committee members insist they’re close to finishing off a proposal.

Republicans involved in the process also say the projections for the revenue impact of the bill from Congress’s official scorekeeper, the Joint Committee on Taxation, have not been as optimistic as they had hoped.

And on top of that, senior Republicans on Ways and Means say they still have to paper over some differences within the panel.

“There’s little issues that we’re still trying to work out,” Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.) told The Hill. “But I think we’ll get those worked out. I’m very confident the committee will be rock solid.”

Boustany said the committee’s next step would be to boost outreach to the business world and the rank and file.

“Once the product’s finalized, and we got the scoring and all that settled, we’re all behind it on the committee — then the next step is the rollout,” Boustany said, before noting Ways and Means had “a lot of work to do” to educate members not on the panel.

On the K Street front, lobbyists and advocacy group officials say they understand why Camp would want to keep them out of the loop about a measure that would create winners and losers in the business community.

“The stakes are so high for them — a leak here and a leak there, and the whole ship will sink,” said CUNA’s Donovan.

Groups are also finding other methods to cull information. NAW’s West, who is a top official in a group seeking to save the “last in, first out” accounting method, said they had heard from Republicans on Ways and Means that

Camp’s draft would at least scale back the provision.

“If you know that something you care about a lot is going to get hurt, it doesn’t mean you don’t stop lobbying,” West said. “This is the beginning, not the end, of the process.