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Posts in "Taxes"
July 10, 2014
Thursday will see this year’s most consequential vote in the once-mighty House Ways and Means Committee — to propose one of the more assertive legislative punts in recent memory.
The panel will get behind a plan for patching the gaping chasm in the Highway Trust Fund for the next 10 months, after which the fundamental fiscal flaw in the nation’s main public works program will be exposed once again. House Republicans, not worried about losing control of the chamber this fall, have concluded that’s when they stand their best chance of driving a long-term solution.
The Senate is looking at a totally different approach, one that wraps the funding problem in caution tape for only five months. The Democrats there are keenly aware they may have to turn over the keys to the GOP come January, so they view the lame-duck session as potentially their last best chance to come up with a lasting fix to a problem that’s been festering for years.
Put another way, this month’s big fight over how to sidestep the edge of the transportation funding cliff is not going to be about remaking an outdated policy. Not surprising this close to an election, political positioning is at the heart of the dispute — which only will determine which party can claim the upper hand when the real debate begins. Full story
April 27, 2014
Congress returns Monday afternoon for its longest run of the year — nine straight weeks when the lights will be on in at least one chamber. And, for so many glimmers of policymaking hope, it’s getting close to now-or-never time.
The House will be gone again in two weeks, the Senate will take off all of Memorial Day week and the House will be dark again the first week in June. But the next bicameral break is not until June 30 through July 4.
But don’t be fooled by the slog from spring into summer that’s now getting started. For the 113th Congress, it’s later than you may think.
After Independence Day, there are just four weeks until the August recess, which lasts five weeks, including the week starting on Labor Day, followed by maybe as few as a dozen days in session before early October. That’s when the House majority leadership has promised members they can go home to campaign full time, and the Senate’s likely to follow suit.
That’s not much time for genuine legislating, especially given that both parties plan to spend much of the time using the Capitol as a sound stage for their political messaging. This week, for example, the Democrats who run the Senate will make a big show of their obviously-going-nowhere legislation to raise the minimum wage by 39 percent in just two years. And the Republicans who run the House will go after headlines with their entirely-for-show vote to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about the agency’s scrutiny of conservative political groups.
But there are still dozens of members in both parties working in the shadows toward deals that would refute the conventional wisdom that nothing will get done this election year. Serious talks are under way about how to finance the next generation of road construction, once the highway trust fund is emptied later in the year; how to meaningfully shrink the Postal Service’s overhead, and how to get a majority of House Republicans to “yes” on an immigration overhaul.
Any breakthroughs on those fronts are probably a season away. But here are five areas that remain ripe for important accomplishment in the next two months: Full story
March 2, 2014
The budget President Barack Obama sends to Congress on Tuesday will be a month late and hundreds of billions of dollars short.
But no matter, the Capitol’s conventional wisdom holds, that the unenforced legal deadline for his submission was Feb. 3, and that he’ll propose acquiescing in significant deficits for the indefinite future. A truce has been called in the fiscal wars, the thinking goes, and so Obama’s fiscal 2015 document will be little more than the ritualistic starting point for the most desultory budget debate of this decade.
In the big picture, that is the way it looks to play out. But there are several secondary policymaking and political storylines that could make the budget beat interesting in 2014.
The reasons it’s supposed to be a snooze are by now well understood: The rare bipartisan budget deal reached and ratified in December decided the grand total for discretionary spending in the coming year, so there’s minimal reason for an appropriations deadlock. The latest debt limit extension has locked away that particular countdown clock until well after the elections. That means there’s no new fiscal cliff in sight, allowing both Obama and top Republicans to set aside their last, best offers in pursuit of a grand bargain on deficit reduction.
These are five subplots most worth watching. Full story
February 26, 2014
What is the point of launching a trial balloon that has already been fatally shot full of holes?
That was the rhetorical question of the day Wednesday, when House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp ceremonially unveiled his plan for the biggest tax overhaul in three decades. The Michigan Republican did so hours after his extensively leaked idea — and the entire topic of an IRS rulebook rewrite — had been marked as a 2014 legislative dead letter by both of his party’s top congressional leaders.
There actually were strategic, selfish and political rationales for Camp to go ahead with his lonely news conference. Full story
February 11, 2014
The book on Ron Wyden is that he’s one of the Capitol’s grandest thinkers, with a sprawling range of policy interests matched with wonkish expertise, and eager to work outside the box to put a bipartisan stamp on his many big ideas.
All of that may be true, but so is this: On Thursday the Oregon Democrat will become the most liberal chairman in the modern history of the Finance Committee, the most powerful panel in the Senate.
Notwithstanding his many well-publicized feints toward Republicans — on health entitlements reform and tax simplification, trade liberalization and clean energy, foreign surveillance and domestic civil liberties, senatorial secrecy and campaign financing — Wyden remains among the senators most loyal to the mainstream American political left.
His voting record has earned him a 94 percent annual average support score during his Senate career from Americans for Democratic Action and an 88 percent approval level from the AFL-CIO. He’s voted the way President Barack Obama wanted 97 percent of the time in the past five years, CQ Roll Call’s congressional vote studies found. And he’s stuck with his side on 97 percent of votes that fell mostly along party lines during his 18 years as a senator — a time period when the annual Senate Democratic party unity score was 11 points below that. Full story
November 20, 2013
In the current congressional climate, it’s wiser to assume something won’t happen than it is to assume it will — even when it’s the chairman of an important committee proposing a sweeping policy rewrite.
That advice should prove good for assessing the meaning of this week’s biggest legislative policy revelations: the plans for revamping the federal tax code that Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus has been gestating for years, which he has started parceling out in modest daily installments.
One of the top Democratic tax-writers on the Hill for more than a decade, the Montana Democrat has been defying initial expectations and working as hard as he’s able to marshal whatever political capital he has behind an overhaul. He still dreams of defying all the odds and realizing his biggest legislative achievement in the next year before his four decades representing Montana in Washington come to an end.
“Once we get the ball rolling, many are going to say, ‘Hey, maybe there’s something to this. Maybe there’s an opportunity there to help the country create jobs and therefore an opportunity for political benefit,’” he told reporters in beginning his big reveal Tuesday.
It’s tough to find viable reasons for believing he’ll achieve this admittedly steep uphill climb, but there are several solid reasons to be confident it won’t.
May 13, 2013
President Barack Obama moved tentatively today to join the bubbling outrage at the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups, although he said he didn’t have sufficient reason yet to either condemn outright or apologize directly for the tax agency’s behavior.
“If it turns out that IRS employees acted in anything less than a neutral and non-partisan way, then that is outrageous,” Obama said in a mid-morning news conference with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron.
But he also said he would wait to say more about the revelations — that groups with conservative-sounding names were singled out for heightened IRS scrutiny before being granted tax-exempt status during the 2012 campaign — until Treasury’s inspector general for taxes concludes whether the behavior was politically motivated or otherwise broke regulatory rules.
That yearlong investigation is done and the recommendations are expected to be made public this week, maybe as soon as today.
Since the story broke May 10, congressional anger has come mainly from Republicans, who are falling all over themselves promising all manner of investigations, hearings and legislation. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for example, called today for the ouster of the IRS commissioner. Full story
April 23, 2013
When Montana’s Max Baucus first became chairman of the Senate Finance Committee a dozen years ago, a colleague of mine on the tax beat worked this telling observation into her profile: His remarks in public were so halting, she wrote, that he often appeared as if “still reflecting on what he should say even as the words left his mouth.”
That phrase sprung to mind when word got out Tuesday morning that Baucus was retiring — the biggest 180 in a four-decade career characterized by such sharp and just-when-you-least-expected-them turnabouts. Two hours later, he still wasn’t quite ready to state clearly what everyone already knew.
“I’ve got people I’ve got to talk to first,” Baucus said as moved past the crush of reporters that waited for him to finish a relatively routine committee meeting. “I’m going to talk to my staff right now. And phone calls I’ve got to make.”
The Baucus record has been marked more than anything by a willingness to ignore the wishes of fellow Democrats and the entreaties of his leadership, especially when they conflicted with his perceived political realities back in Montana. But, for lawmakers and lobbyists alike, there is another related aspect of his style almost as important to be aware of — and sometimes even more annoying. Full story
April 19, 2013
Monday afternoon’s Senate vote is all about Democratic leaders finding another way around Max Baucus — one of the most frequent, unpredictable and enormously powerful thorns on their own side.
Senators will decide whether to break a filibuster helped by Baucus, who for years has been using his Finance Committee chairmanship to bottle up legislation leading to nationwide sales taxes on most online purchases. He says he can’t abide the measure’s effect in Montana — one of five states where there’s no sales tax, but where bigger businesses would have to collect sales taxes from Internet customers elsewhere. He says that’s both an unfair burden on his constituent businesses and an infringement on his state’s rights.
Baucus looks certain to lose; 75 senators voted for a nonbinding measure last month signaling support for the legislation. But the vote will also certainly do nothing to change the ways of a senator whose iconoclastic and parochially driven brand of centrism — especially when he’s within two years of an election — has often infuriated his leaders for the better part of two decades.
That’s because his approach has helped him repel a collection of vigorous challenges and win six terms in the Senate. It also makes him the front-runner at the moment to hold the seat again in 2014 even though President Barack Obama lost Montana by nearly 14 percentage points. Although his approval rating is at an underwhelming 45 percent, his $4.9 million in the bank at the start of April was more than anyone else in the “red state five” — the Democratic incumbents running next year in states Mitt Romney carried last year. And, although the recruiting of more formidable challengers hasn’t stopped, the only potentially viable opponent so far is a former Republican state senator, Corey Stapleton.
But it’s an axiom of Baucus’ congressional life that he’s only stayed safe by running scared, which helps explain why the Internet tax bill standoff marks the fourth time he’s so publicly scraped against the party grain in the past month.
Two of those times came just hours apart on Wednesday.
In the morning, he became the first senior congressional Democrat to publicly express apprehension about implementation of the health care law — which, of course, he had a central hand in writing, much to the consternation of his more liberal colleagues and many of the people in Montana.
“I just see a huge train wreck coming down,” he said, mainly when the enrollment period for the new insurance exchanges begins this fall.
“I don’t know what he’s looking at,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius snipped to reporters when the Finance hearing ended.
Then in the afternoon, Baucus and just three other Democrats broke with the party mainstream on all four key amendments to the gun violence bill. As the National Rifle Association wanted, he voted against expanding background checks, banning assault weapons and restricting high-capacity magazines, and in favor of allowing one state’s concealed-carry permit to apply nationwide.
His first high-profile apostasy of the year came just before the spring recess, when he was one of only four in his caucus to vote against the Democratic budget, which squeaked through without a single vote to spare. It calls on Finance to write a bill raising $975 billion in taxes in the next decade, which the chairman says is way too much. He slipped out of the chamber early in the roll call, even as Majority Leader Harry Reid was trying to figure a way to allow colleagues in even more pronounced political trouble the option of voting “no.”
The Nevada Democrat was reminded in all four instances that there is little percentage in expecting Baucus to put his personal political considerations behind his responsibilities as a top committee chairman to help his party with its legislative goals. Tom Daschle learned that a decade ago, when Baucus openly defied the previous Democratic leader’s orders to stay away from the negotiations that yielded the first Bush tax cut and the Medicare prescription drug program. In the 1990s, George Mitchell had to worry about Baucus’ balancing act pulling him away from the positions he was supposed to promote as Environment and Public Works chairman.
This spring’s gun control, Internet levy and budget resolution matters are tiny fare, though, compared with the No. 1 item on the Baucus agenda, which is to engineer the biggest tax law overhaul since 1980s.
Republicans eager for a Democratic partner who would see things their way — that the corporate and individual codes should be simplified in ways that don’t demand more taxes from the rich — are salivating at the chance to cut a deal with Baucus while he’s running for his seventh term. Many Democrats are openly leery of letting that happen and are counting on Obama to keep the brakes on a tax rewrite tamped down until 2015.
Baucus hopes then to break the record for time on Finance and, because his party doesn’t believe in term limits, to still be chairman. He will be 73 and presumably in his final term. And so it’s only then when his fellow Democrats think he might be willing to strike a deal entirely on his party’s terms.