The deadline is coming up this week for lawmakers in Congress to submit their preferences for the “must have” tax breaks that need to be kept in the Tax Code under Senate Finance Committee leaders’ “blank slate” approach to tax reform.

In Washington, that also means the deadline is looming for all those lobbyists to submit their list of preferences to lawmakers and defend their favorite tax breaks that have been the source of generous campaign contributions. When Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and ranking Republican member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, first unveiled their tabula rasa approach to tax reform last month in a “Dear Colleague” letter, conventional wisdom had it that the effort would keep the lobbyists busy pressing senators to preserve their cherished tax breaks (see Senate Finance Leaders Offer Blank-Slate Approach to Tax Reform).

And indeed, the effort has reportedly touched off a flurry of lobbying activity, which is likely to help some lawmakers procure funds for their re-election campaigns next year. Baucus and Hatch also heard concerns from their fellow senators that details would leak out about the tax breaks they wrote in to defend, so they have reportedly promised to set up a high-security system that will keep those submissions super-secret for the next 50 years, according to The Hill. That way, lawmakers won’t get into trouble with either their constituents back home or their campaign contributors in Washington about which tax breaks they worked hard to defend and which ones they didn’t.

Meanwhile, Baucus and his counterpart in the House, the chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp, R-Mich., have continued their efforts to solicit tax reform proposals from the public, both online through their site and Twitter account @SimplerTaxes, as well as in person. Earlier this month, they kicked off a road show tour to meet with the public, in an effort to get outside the Washington Beltway and perhaps dispel concerns that lobbyists are unduly influencing the tax reform process (see Congressional Tax Leaders Begin Tax Reform Road Show).

Marc Gerson, a former majority tax counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee who is now a tax attorney with the law firm Miller & Chevalier, believes the tax reform effort is a serious one, though he's not certain how far the lawmakers will get with their efforts to overhaul the Tax Code. “It’s unclear what the level and extent of participation by senators will be,” he told me Wednesday. “Some senators are not participating at all. They’re all considering it, but there are a lot of variations. Reportedly some senators will set up face-to-face meetings with Baucus and Hatch, but won’t submit anything in writing. Some will submit big picture proposals talking about specific taxes and specific expenditures. Then there are senators who will put in submissions in varying detail. Then you have these constituents trying to get their priorities heard.”

As yet, it’s unclear how much participation Baucus and Hatch are attracting from their “Dear Colleague” letter, Gerson noted, including how many senators are actually participating and in what level of detail, and how much it is really advancing the thinking on tax reform. After all, the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee have been holding a series of hearings in recent years to consider various aspects of tax reform, and the Senate Finance Committee has released a hefty set of tax reform option papers. Ultimately, Baucus hopes to release a draft of a tax reform bill this fall, but that could be just one more document on the growing pile.

“It’s this data collection exercise that comes pretty close to when the congressional recess is,” said Gerson. “Baucus intends to mark up a tax reform bill this year. This is one data entry into this process. Both committees have done a lot of things to gather information from taxpayers. The Senate process is part of it. It’s uncertain how much it will add. Then there’s the question of what they do next with it.  I think regardless of whether tax reform is enacted this year, these exercises are all helpful and will contribute to an eventual tax reform effort, whenever that may be. It’s important for taxpayers to participate in the system and make their comments known.”

Gerson pointed out that both Baucus and Camp are looking to get a bill produced by their two committees next year, when Baucus is set to retire and Camp will be completing his term as Ways and Means chairman. “Whatever they produce at the committee level will be the starting point for that effort or for any future effort,” he said.

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