Members of the House Ways and Means Committee sit down to write an overhaul of the tax code this month with the trepidation of a first prom night and the knowledge that no matter how it comes out, someone won't like what they do.
If they succeed in producing a tax revision bill along the lines of President Reagan's sweeping proposal to cut tax rates and purge loopholes, beneficiaries of various deductions and credits will blame them for raising their taxes.
If they deadlock or produce the tax-code equivalent of a mouse, Reagan will in all likelihood accuse them of obstructing his agenda.
If the measure brings in less federal revenue than the current code, they will stand accused of raising the federal deficit. If it brings in more, the president will brand them as tax-raisers.
"There is not any excitement among the members that they've got a chance to do something great and they should go at it immediately. But there is a willingness to go ahead," said Rep. J. J. (Jake) Pickle (D-Tex.).
"There is a long way to go," said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).
The chances of the House, Senate and president agreeing on a tax bill by the end of this year are considered extremely slim. Only under the most optimistic of scenarios will the Ways and Means Committee produce a bill in time for full House action, Senate Finance Committee consideration, Senate passage and presidential signature.
Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood has said that if the House can send him a bill by Oct. 15, he can move legislation through the Senate before Christmas. But Ways and Means will not begin serious tax-writing until the end of September, at the earliest, making it very unlikely the Oct. 15 deadline can be met. And while Packwood has said he wants his committee to produce a tax revision bill, the Senate process is much slower and messier than are the operating rules of the House.
And it's not clear whether Congress will stay in session long enough this year to permit passage of a tax-overhaul bill in either house. Even Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III says the administration has only a "fair shot" at getting a tax package this year.
Most observers give the Ways and Means panel a good chance of producing a bill this fall. Rep. Bill Archer (R-Tex.) points out, however, that the drive to produce a tax overhaul measure on a fast timetable could actually harm the cause of revamping the tax code.
"I see two possible scenarios," he said. "Either Rep. Dan Rostenkowski D-Ill. works us around the clock until we finally get a majority for a package -- the danger there is that we may overlook a lot of things and have to go back to them -- or if we deliberate laboriously, it could take a lot longer."
What that bill will look like raises an even less predictable set of questions. The magnitude of the biggest restructuring of the tax code in more than 30 years is so great that conventional political predictions of what Congress will do probably don't carry much weight.
The elements of the Reagan plan that Ways and Means members do not like are clear. How they will find additional tax revenue to replace the changes they make, without increasing the federal deficit, is less obvious.
Asked last week to name the issues on which there will be controversy or compromise, Rostenkowski quickly reeled off business depreciation write-offs for buildings and equipment, the investment tax credit (which pays for up to 10 percent of the cost of new equipment) and termination of the deduction for state and local taxes.
Of those three, depreciation is likely to be made somewhat less favorable to business than the current system, the investment tax credit probably will be wiped out and there will be a compromise on state and local taxes.
Other possible Ways and Means changes could tilt the plan less toward upper-income taxpayers, who now would get a sizeable tax cut under the Reagan plan. Because Reagan says he will oppose any bill with a top tax rate of more than 35 percent, however, the committee may well change that income distribution by fiddling with such other provisions as the tax rate on capital gains, profits on the sale of an asset.
In other possible modifications to the Reagan plan, committee members probably will push for preserving the "marriage penalty" deduction for families with two earners, will not accept the administration's proposal to wipe out the tax break for tax-deferred retirement savings plans, called 401(k) plans, and will not fully tax the increase in value in life insurance policies as the administration proposes.