It’s an annual ritual. Congress lets a package of tax breaks expire at the end of the year in their mad dash to leave Washington for the holidays. Now back in town, they must decide whether to renew the credits and deductions retroactively. In many, perhaps most, of the 55 tax breaks this year, they shouldn’t.
The expired breaks are a bag of sugar plums offered as a reward to the industries with the most persuasive lobbyists.
They include $12 billion over a decade in credits for windmills, a $2 billion annual subsidy for things like two- and three-wheeled plug-in electric “e-bikes,” and $75 million in incentives for Hollywood producers to film in the United States instead of Canada and other tax-friendlier foreign locales.
The giveaways include $50 million in accelerated depreciation to speed construction of NASCAR racetracks, a rum excise-tax rebate for Puerto Rico that dates from 1917 and a $250 deduction for teachers who pay for school supplies out of their pockets.
Both carry a $240 million cost to the Treasury. Add up each of these tax gimmicks and the price tag balloons to $50 billion.
This annual ritual brings bloat to the tax code. Things started simply enough a century ago when the income tax became law, administered with a 400-page rule book.
After 100 years of shoveling preferences and special-interest provisions into the law, year after year, we’re stuck with the 73,954-page monstrosity that has made April 15 another date that lives in infamy.
Congress has the opportunity to save the day by doing what it does best: nothing.
It could trim a few hundred pages by declining to carve out more benefits for cronies. That’s only a temporary fix. Ultimately, the goal must be to rip out every provision that treats some people as more important than others. The tax burden could be lighter for everybody. That’s the principle underlying the flat tax and the fair tax.
Rep. Dave Camp, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, says he wants to overhaul the entire tax code. So does his Democratic counterpart in the Senate, Max Baucus of Montana, but Mr. Baucus is packing his bags for Beijing, where has been nominated to be the ambassador to China.
The bigger problem is that beneficiaries of the breaks will never let them sink quietly into the sea of forgetfulness, where they belong.
The renewal of a $9 billion provision in the tax code that allows manufacturers and banks to defer taxes on overseas income, for example, is said to be a top lobbying priority for GE, JP Morgan and others, which contend it helps them compete overseas.
Those who take advantage of these tax breaks need certainty to plan for the future, but there’s no reason for Congress to rush to renew these tax breaks, since they were in effect through 2013 for tax-filing purposes this spring.
Until Americans demand and get a tax code that treats all of us as equals, filing a tax return on a postcard remains the stuff of dreams.