Marin Voice: More honesty needed in Congress tax debate

March 01, 2015

Marin Independent Journal
March 1, 2015

It’s tax season, when Americans descend into the U.S. tax code and return bewildered and/or enraged.

Our tax code is riddled with loopholes. Some large corporations pay nothing. Others pay their full share. Oil companies get special perks unavailable to other industries. And the super-rich enjoy tax breaks unavailable to working families.

Our tax code is also failing to raise enough revenue to pay our nation’s bills — despite the lowest level of discretionary federal spending since at least 1962. Thanks to unfunded wars, ill-conceived tax cuts and a global recession, we haven’t seen a balanced budget since the Clinton administration. Our national debt is $18.1 trillion and growing.

We need a tax code that is understandable, fair, and fiscally responsible — one that “helps working Americans trying to get a leg up in the new economy,” as President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address.

Unfortunately, the 114th Congress is off to a bad start on tax policy.

House Republicans who call themselves “deficit hawks” just passed two bills making permanent tax changes without addressing the $100 billion hit to the deficit. The debate defied conventional wisdom: Democrats proposed amendments to offset the deficit impact, while Republicans voted the amendments down and gave flowery speeches about how unfunded tax deductions for food banks were critical in the “fight against hunger,” an abrupt political pivot from recent GOP attempts to slash $40 billion from Food Stamps.

We saw the same partisan posturing last year. House Republicans singled out popular tax breaks that were expiring in 2015 and held votes to permanently extend them without any offset, ballooning the deficit by $800 billion. They spoke of needy constituencies that benefit from these tax breaks, ignoring previous GOP votes to slash vital programs for the same constituencies.

These orchestrated “gotcha” votes are a familiar game used for setting up attack ads in the next election (“Why did your congressman vote against charitable donations to fight hunger?”). Democrats do the same thing with clever “motions to recommit” to trap Republicans into uncomfortable votes.

These political games must end.

But there’s a broader, more sinister strategy here: Creating deficit pressure to drive harsh cuts in the social safety net. We see it in the Republican push to lift “sequester” budget constraints for defense spending. And in the House Rules change spearheaded by Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Chairman Ryan believes fiscal impacts of legislation should be evaluated by “dynamic scoring” that assumes tax cuts magically pay for themselves. “Dynamic scoring” is a farce; it applies to tax cuts but not to investments in infrastructure or education. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, like most credible economists, rejects it outright. So Chairman Ryan changed the rules to force CBO to use “dynamic scoring.” This lets House Republicans pretend that cutting taxes is always great for the economy and the budget, and investments in things like infrastructure and schools simply drain the budget without any economic benefits.

Last year, Chairman Ryan said: “if Washington is serious about helping families, then it needs to get serious about the national debt.” I agree. But inflating the deficit with unpaid-for tax policies and defense spending while cooking the books with “dynamic scoring” is not getting serious; it’s playing politics. America deserves better.

Like most Democrats, I support the charitable deduction and many other tax breaks. We should extend them, but let’s be honest about how we do that.

I won’t play into a cynical strategy to force harsh cuts that hurt the very families and institutions I want to help. If we’re truly serious about the national debt, let’s find a bipartisan way to fund these tax extenders—closing loopholes, new revenues, or cuts somewhere other than vital social services.

We can improve our tax code and get our fiscal house in order, but it’s going to require more honesty and less partisan theater than we’ve seen so far in this Congress.

By:  Congressman Jared Huffman