When members of the House Ways and Means Committee meet in the Longworth building this week to start wrangling over rewriting the tax code, they will not be seated along their normal banked rows, but around a large, specially installed table.
Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), who is determined to move a tax bill through his committee, ordered the table for the same reason a psychiatrist puts patients on a couch: It's reassuring.
Members skittish about cutting tax rates and wiping out deductions will be under the stern gaze of their chairman. Participants frantically juggling compromises and revenues can seek support for amendments by looking around the table. And legislators who wish the whole issue would go away will be drawn into the action.
As the table shows, House tax writers are antsy about taking on the complex and politically charged issue of tax revision. Now that the onus is on them to act, they are confronted with a choice between adopting tax changes sure to make at least some groups angry and failing to act on the chief domestic policy initiative of a popular Republican president.
Four months after President Reagan proposed his massive overhaul of the tax code, members of the Ways and Means Committee still aren't sure what kind of bill they want to write or whether they should produce one at all. They are willing to go along with a chairman who has been working for their loyalty for years, but they are not sure what price that loyalty will exact.
"There is a feeling of uneasiness on the committee. We're now in the trough," said Rep. Ed Jenkins (D-Ga.), noting that Rostenkowski had always said bill-writing would be a difficult time. "Whether the interest is going to come back, I don't know, but this nervousness was predicted. We're ready to go into battle, but we're not willing to lead the charge."
Several factors have intervened in the last few weeks to slow the momentum for revamping the tax code. Legislators on and off the Ways and Means panel have found that trade legislation is a much more appealing subject than tax overhaul. Some House and Senate leaders have said there is no chance tax revision can be completed this year. Other legislation that Ways and Means must handle is threatening to take longer than expected, complicating the tax-revision process.
Rostenkowski says he is "optimistic" that his committee can produce a satisfactory tax-overhaul bill on a reasonable schedule.
"There is always a nervous apprehension" at this point in the process, he said in a telephone interview. "I wouldn't know what to compare this markup to because of how much it entails. There is a genuine feeling of pride in the Ways and Means Committee. I don't remember when we have visibly been so cohesive and bipartisan. I'll take a small bow for instilling that camaraderie."
Rostenkowski, who has staked his political future in the House on the tax issue, has spent many hours working to make sure his committee members won't give up on tax overhaul when the unpleasant process of throwing out deductions and credits begins. He has met with more than half the Democrats in the House over the last few months and constantly talks with members of his committee from both parties. Monday, for example, he is scheduled to have five personal meetings with committee members.
"He says, 'Talk to me,' " said a committee aide. "They don't have to run after him and try to catch up with him. He wants to know what their biggest problems are."
Rostenkowski has kept his agenda quiet. In the interview, he said with pride that he had not asked to protect a single section of the tax code, even though he had originally sponsored some of them. He is hoping, aides and colleagues say, that a flexible bill-writing procedure will enable the committee to arrive at a consensus on controversial tax changes. "Eventually the chairman will try to put his imprint and give his beliefs about the way the bill should look," said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). "But if he had done that a long time ago, he would have complicated his ability to produce a bill that will be able to pass on the floor."
Thursday, Rostenkowski is to present to the committee a set of "staff options," proposed alternatives to perhaps one-third of the elements of the Reagan plan. The chairman and his staff emphasize that the options don't necessarily have Rostenkowski's endorsement and that a menu of other alternatives will be available.
But tax writers point out that it is the staff options that will be subject to amendment, so that if a majority of the committee cannot agree on a better provision, the staff version stands.
"Wherever the chips may fall, however it's interpreted, it's my responsibility," Rostenkowski said.
Despite all his time and effort, Rostenkowski admits that he can't drive any particular package through the committee. Members will have to reach a consensus on such controversial proposals as eliminating the deduction for state and local taxes in order to achieve the more ephemeral political benefits of lower tax rates and a system perceived as being fairer.
So far, they are more preoccupied with preserving pet provisions than they are with the big picture. During a private meeting with committee Democrats Thursday, Rostenkowski was peppered with questions about procedures for amendment, questions that indicated members have many changes in mind.
They were especially worried about the requirement that each amendment raise as much revenue as it cuts, so that the bill as a whole does not increase the federal deficit. Junior members feared that by the time they were called on to propose amendments, all the easy tax increases would be taken.
"Most people" had concerns, said one member present at the meeting. "Some of the members were saying, what do we do if we get a bill and it can't pass on the House floor?"
To keep his committee in line, Rostenkowski has to maintain members' loyalty and preserve his image as a "winner" who can get his way in the House, congressional analysts say.
But he has lost battles in the past -- he was steamrollered in 1981 when the Reagan tax cut passed over his opposition, bypassed in 1982 when the Senate wrote a tax-increase bill and sidetracked in 1983 when a smaller tax proposal went down in the House Rules Committee -- and he is having some difficulty getting other items out of the way this year so that tax overhaul can take over the agenda.
The Rules Committee disagreed with some of the figures in his committee's package of reconciliation spending cuts last week, for example, and Rostenkowski will have to try again. Ways and Means also must set aside one day next week to consider technical corrections to the 1984 tax law.
Other legislative priorities include consideration of a tax on companies to clean up toxic wastes, which needs to be done by Sept. 30, and passage of legislation to curb imports of textiles, which Rostenkowski agreed to in order to defuse strong sentiment in the House that trade should take precedence over taxes.
Most committee members think, however, that some overhaul of the tax code will emerge from their closed-door sessions. Interviews with all 36 Ways and Means members for the October issue of Political Profiles found the vast majority predicting that the committee would produce tax legislation. A smaller number said they expect that legislation to be passed by the House this year.
What tax changes should be in that bill? The members all gave different answers.