Leaders of the Senate and House Budget committees, groping for ways to raise revenue without increasing taxes, are seriously exploring national amnesty for payment of back taxes in order to reduce budget deficits.
In the Senate, Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) has listed tax amnesty as a leading option for inclusion in a package of $12 billion to $20 billion in revenue increases that would help meet the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit target of $144 billion for next year.
In the House, five members of the Budget Committee are cosponsors of tax-amnesty legislation that was introduced late last week.
"People want to raise revenues but don't want to raise taxes," Domenici said. "Tax amnesty fits that very nicely."
Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), an amnesty sponsor in the House, made the same point and added, "I think it's going to be taken seriously."
The push for tax amnesty, under which delinquent taxpayers would pay back taxes and interest in exchange for immunity from fines and penalties, was inspired in large part by the success of amnesty programs in 18 states.
But experts question whether a federal amnesty would succeed as well as some of these state efforts, and even proponents concede that the one-year infusion of back taxes is more of a one-shot contribution to an immediate deficit reduction than a long-term answer to the country's fiscal needs.
Tax amnesty is one of nine options, worth a total of about $70 billion in new revenues, that the Senate Budget Committee will consider as it opens drafting sessions for a fiscal 1987 budget resolution on Wednesday. It expects to select options that produce new revenue of $12 billion to $20 billion.
The amnesty proposal is calculated by the budget panel staff to raise $8.6 billion next year. Estimates on how much revenue amnesty would raise range from $7 billion to $12 billion, with some of that resulting from strengthened compliance that would accompany amnesty. Budget experts acknowledge that the estimates are very rough.
Other proposals on the Senate list are relatively modest revenue measures from President Reagan in his fiscal 1987 budget, a gasoline tax increase, an oil import fee, an increase in wine and beer taxes, new cigarette tax increases, a ceiling on tax-free treatment of health benefits, reduction in tax preferences and partial taxation of Social Security benefits.
However, Domenici, who is faced with opposition from Reagan and House Democrats to tampering with Social Security benefits, plans to strike the Social Security tax proposal from the committee's options list.
Domenici has not specifically endorsed the amnesty proposal but indicated he is favorably inclined toward the concept. "Frankly, there appears to be growing support for amnesty, and I see no problem putting it on the list," he said.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) said Dole is also looking seriously at the idea, at least as a general concept.
At least two amnesty bills have been introduced in the Senate, one sponsored by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D.N.J.), a member of the budget panel.
Democratic sponsorship of amnesty proposals in both houses raises the prospect of bipartisan cooperation on the budget, which Domenici has said is essential to achieving a congressional budget resolution under the difficulties imposed by Gramm-Rudman-Hollings legislation.
Under current economic projections, the budget control measure would require spending cuts or tax increases of about $38 billion to achieve the mandated $144 billion deficit for next year. The legislation requires automatic, across-the-board cuts in many programs if the target is not reached, although that automatic figure faces a constitutional court challenge.
Domenici has said repeatedly that it will be difficult if not impossible to reach the deficit target without tax increases, but Democrats and some Republicans are reluctant even to consider tax increases unless Reagan proposes them. Reagan proposed about $6 billion in revenue increases in his budget but has vowed to veto any major tax increase.
Schumer, who joined House budget panel members George Miller (D-Calif.), Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), Chester G. Atkins (D-Mass.) and Marty Russo (D-Ill.) in sponsoring the House version of the amnesty proposal, said it should satisfy Reagan's demands by raising revenue without a general tax increase.
"But it doesn't solve the long-term problem" because it involves only a one-shot savings, he said.
Schumer also expressed some skepticism about the durability of the idea. "They House members are talking tax amnesty this week with the same fervor that they talked about oil import [fees] two weeks ago," he said. Support for an oil import levy has cooled for a variety of reasons, including opposition from states heavily dependent on imported oil and concern over the impact of higher oil costs on economic growth.
The import fee on the Senate's options list would be $8 per barrel, and it would raise $16.8 billion a year. Among the other proposals, a three-cent increase in the nine cents-a-gallon federal tax on motor fuel would raise $10.4 billion a year. Doubling the current 16 cents-a-pack cigarette tax would raise $3.5 billion, and raising the beer and wine tax to the level of taxes on hard liquor would raise $5.7 billion a year. An across-the-board cut in itemized deductions and other tax preferences would raise $9 billion. A ceiling on tax-free health benefits to conform to tax treatment for life insurance benefits would raise $3.5 billion.