President Bush yesterday pushed back the deadline for the release of tax recommendations by two months, to Sept. 30, hoping that by then, more pressing priorities -- such as Social Security and energy policy -- will have been cleared from Congress's plate.
By executive order, Bush extended the life of his tax panel, even though it is on track to complete its work by the original July 31 deadline. For several months, White House officials suggested they would put changing the tax code on the back burner as they struggled to pass other legislation that have been far more troublesome than anticipated.
But last week, others appeared eager to jump into the issue of simplifying the tax code, with or without the White House. The conservative American Enterprise Institute held a forum on the subject, followed by a House Ways and Means Committee hearing, then a luncheon with R. Glenn Hubbard, former chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
Yesterday's announcement should give the White House a little more breathing room before the panel's report is released.
The panel will issue a series of potential changes to the tax code, ranging from incremental changes to the existing income tax system to more drastic changes such as a consumption tax.
Treasury Secretary John W. Snow will then forward Bush his single recommendation. Because of that two-stage process, a Sept. 30 deadline pushes the issue into next year, said Michael J. Graetz, a Yale University tax expert.
"There are a lot of congressional and presidential priorities on the plate right now, Social Security, [the Central American Free Trade Agreement], energy, the Patriot Act, judicial nominees, and we're heading very quickly into the July 4 recess and the August recess after that," said Taylor Griffin, a Treasury Department spokesman. "We wanted to make sure this has the attention it deserves" when it is released.
Tara Bradshaw, spokeswoman for the panel, said its members did not ask for the delay.
After he was reelected, Bush framed Social Security and tax code restructuring -- both extremely ambitious policy endeavors -- as the twin pillars of his domestic agenda for the second term. But action on Social Security has gone far slower than expected, White House officials acknowledge. In recent days, congressional Republicans have suggested that administration explore an exit strategy, suggesting that Social Security legislation may be hopelessly mired on Capitol Hill.
But White House aides want Congress to keep trying, and changing the tax code could be as politically explosive as Social Security.