Congress is setting up for a showdown this fall on the budget, the debt ceiling and possibly immigration.
But another item on the agenda hasn't been getting as much attention: changing tax policy. The chairmen of the two tax-writing committees have been working for years, holding hearings, releasing white papers, even hosting bipartisan tax chat lunches at a pub — often with little notice.
Dave Camp is a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Max Baucus is a Montana Democrat and leads the Senate Finance Committee.
On Monday, they were both wearing nearly identical dark suits with light blue shirts, top button open, no necktie, as they launched their tax tour in Minnesota.
"We decided just to get out of Washington," Baucus told a group at the headquarters of the technology company 3M, "and just meet with people around the country, and you're No. 1. You're the first visit. There is a bit of a bubble in Washington, it's true, and we're just doing our best to kind of break it."
Baucus and Camp shared a podium and maintained a friendly rapport that would make it hard to tell they were from different parties — parties that don't get along — and also have very different ideas about tax policy.
How is this possible? Because they spend most of their time, at least publicly, talking about the things they do agree on.
"What we're trying to do is have a code that lowers rates for everybody with fewer loopholes and special provisions," Camp says. "A simpler, fairer, flatter tax code that grows the economy and provides jobs."
At some point, the pair will have to deal with some sticky issues, like whether tax reform will raise new revenue to reduce the deficit or simply be used to lower people's taxes.
Making the code simpler and flatter means eliminating some tax deductions — and each one has a constituency, says Roberton Williams, a fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.
"The process of change disrupts a lot of what we've got right now, and because there are winners and losers, not everyone will benefit," Williams says. "And those people don't want to see the kinds of change that will come about."
He says he's pessimistic that tax reform can really happen in this political environment.
Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, says the road show and other efforts to get the public involved are good things.
"But it's no substitute for digging into the hard issues, looking at the differences and seeing if we can find common ground," Levin says. "There's no alternative to that."
Camp says they're getting there.
"The commitment is to really try to move something forward, and clearly there are going to be differences." he says. "I mean, there always are. The real issue is how you resolve those differences; we're committed to try to do that."
The next stop on the tour is expected later this month. The chairmen have also set up a website where they're asking for feedback from the public. So far, they've received more than 10,000 comments.
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