While a lot of attention is being paid to the partisan negotiations around a spending deal for the remainder of fiscal year 2015, it appears the 113th Congress will also have one last expensive bipartisan hurrah: the tax extenders package. Last week, the House voted 378 – 46 to “extend” for another year this hodge-podge of “temporary” special interest tax breaks that mostly expired on Dec. 31, 2013. Every indication is that the Senate is likely to adopt it by a similar margin, continuing an ignoble and costly tradition.
The tax extenders package should be the bane of anyone who respects fairness and honesty in tax policy. Sold as a “temporary” extension of numerous tax breaks, the bill consists of dozens of unrelated, narrow carveouts strung together into one package that is reflexively renewed for a year or two at a time, with little or no debate.
The unfairness of tax extenders is apparent in their parochial and questionable nature. While many lawmakers are calling for overall tax reform to make the tax code fairer, flatter and simpler for all, tax extenders make things more complicated and lead to inequitable treatment of similar activities. Owners of motorsports entertainment complexes (think NASCAR tracks) can write off the cost of their facilities over seven years, instead of the standard 39 years for nonresidential property and 15 years for “improvements” (such as grandstands, fences, and roads). Yet owners of other complexes where people are entertained such as movie theaters get no such luck. Purchases of mine safety equipment can be expensed quicker than purchases of safety equipment in other sectors. And folks maintaining railroad tracks, donating excess (expired) food inventory, or blending biodiesel with regular diesel all get special treatment.
These activities very well may provide enough public benefit to justify having a favored place in the tax code. But hearings on these provisions to make that determination are rare.
The dishonesty comes in how tax extenders are passed and sold to the American public. While only passed for one to two years at a time, they are routinely renewed. This legislative trick allows Congress to ignore, or at least hide, the provisions’ true cost. And they are expensive; the current package is projected to cost $81 billion just next year. Finding enough corresponding spending cuts or revenue increases to offset the foregone revenue is too difficult a hill to climb. So Congress resorts to other means to get them out the door.
Typically, the extenders package is a legislative parasite attaching itself to much bigger, must-pass legislation. In 2008, while lawmakers were scrambling to address dire warnings of economic collapse, the extenders package was slapped onto the bank bailout. In 2010, they burrowed their way into much bigger legislation extending the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. And then they wound up in the grand bargain to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff. About the only thing this Congress deserves credit for is the fact that it’s currently trying to pass the tax extenders as a stand-alone package, with a limited amount of debate.
Don’t get too excited, though, because the measure would only retroactively extend the expired provisions for a year. The package will expire again December 31, 2014. Considering 49 weeks have gone by without them, there is simply no argument to be made that these tax provisions are enabling or encouraging behavior that would not have happened otherwise.
When the new Congress is sworn in, the task of pursuing real comprehensive tax reform must begin immediately. Each provision in the code needs be examined to see whether its benefit outweighs its cost, and be judged by a set of criteria, such as the criteria laid out by the Government Accountability Office, including its economic efficiency, equity, simplicity, transparency and administrability.
Taking on tax reform will be tough. A scrum of lobbyists will be trying to grab every lawmaker’s ear, and the back and forth of horse-trading some provisions for others will be arduous. But the longer Congress waits to take up the effort, and perpetuates the dishonest process of “temporary” tax extenders, the longer the tax code will continue to hold America back.