Here's hoping the little noticed one-day kick-off for tax reform, held by the Senate Finance Committee last month, amounts to more than window dressing in the struggle for meaningful tax reform and simplification.
Although the President's Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform finished its work and issued its recommendations last November, the Finance Committee is still awaiting the Treasury and Administration's official response.
To his credit, Senator Charles Grassley, the committee's chairman, appears to take seriously the recommendations of the Advisory Panel.
At the one-day hearing, he signaled his intention to schedule more hearings in the fall. He also commended the panel members for being apolitical in their work.
But it will take more than bipartisanship to usher in a true reform. It will take an exercise of will to change a broken system that many feel is broken.
"Not only is our tax system maddeningly complex, it penalizes work, discourages saving and investment, and hinders the competitiveness of American Businesses," said members of the panel.
"Our tax code is rewritten so often that it should be drafted in pencil," they stated. "Each year, the tax code is adjusted to meet multiple policy goals -- some are broadly shared, but many are not. Myriad tax deductions, credits, exemptions, and other preferences may be a practical way to get policy enacted, but it is a poor way to write a tax code. Whether the government spends more or extends a special tax break, the effect is the same: everyone must pay higher taxes to raise the revenue necessary to run the government."
"If it ain't broke don't fix it" goes the adage, and its received wisdom applies to the tax code in the following way: while everyone admits the code is broken and does need fixing, previous "fixes" have made things worse.
The sponsors of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 had the best of intentions, but failed to achieve real simplicity, or even to slow down the mushrooming growth of regulations necessary to explain it.
"The reform of 1986 was a disaster," said Tom Giovannetti, executive director of Lewisville, Tex.-based Institute for Policy Innovation.
"Its intention of broadening the base and lowering the rates was good, but it raised rates on new saving and investment, eliminated the Investment Tax Credit, lengthened asset lives in depreciation, and put tighter limits on contributions to retirement plans. The most infamous was a change in the passive loss rules on real estate, which hurt the entire real estate market."
Everyone says it's time for real reform, but everybody has his own idea as to what form it should take. And like an old overcoat that has outlived its usefulness, many still feel more comfortable with something familiar than with the unknown.
As they say, "Better the devil you know, than the devil you don't."
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