House and Senate negotiators sit down this week to fashion what on the face of it should be one of the easiest compromises in the recent history of tax legislation.
They will be seeking to raise $9 billion in taxes in 1988, a relatively small amount. Since the respective tax bills passed by the House and Senate have more than $7 billion in shared revenue increases, mathematically, the job looks easy.
But no tax bill ever passes just because the numbers add up. When politics and personalities are added, the outlook for this week's meetings becomes considerably cloudier.
House and Senate tax writers are expected to reconcile their bills by the end of the week, but only after some arduous and contentious negotiations.
The tax bills are part of an agreement between the White House and Congress designed to reduce the anticipated fiscal 1988 federal
budget deficit by at least $30.2 billion.
The Senate tax bill raises $9 billion, the precise amount required by the agreement, and meets the deficit-agreement targets in a way acceptable to the administration. But even before the bill was approved last week, the House's tax chieftain was challenging one of its key elements. House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) said a $1.6 billion provision accelerating the payment of taxes by corporations each quarter should not count toward meeting the $9 billion goal because it merely speeds up the collection of revenue.
Rostenkowski said the provision violates a key tenet of the budget agreement: that any provisions that do not increase taxes be eliminated from the tax portion of the plan. Because of that stipulation, Rostenkowski had to promise to jettison about $2 billion in revenue-losing "sweeteners" from his chamber's tax-increase bill, action that was a bitter pill that he agreed to swallow only after hours of heated meetings with Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III.
Disagreements also may arise over several portions of the House bill not in the Senate version. Rostenkowski aides say he is determined not to let the Senate bill be the point of departure for the conference just because it raises the requisite $9 billion. Once the revenue-losers are discounted, the House bill raises $14 billion in taxes.
"Clearly we are not going into the conference to recede to the Senate bill. They are going to have to accept some of our provisions," said a Ways and Means aide. There are many possible conflicts. The House bill includes provisions affecting home-equity loans, defense and construction contractors, corporate takeovers, bonds sold on the secondary market, "cafeteria" employe benefit plans, the corporate minimum tax, real estate swaps, companies that deduct the value of such "intangibles" as customer lists, companies that do business in South Africa and plants that relocate abroad. None of those is in the Senate measure, which includes a controversial provision to limit the ability of manufacturers and home builders to delay paying taxes when the product is sold on an installment basis.
Some sticking points on taxes strike close to home for some committee members.
The House bill includes a provision that would limit the ability of state and local governments to issue tax-exempt bonds to finance takeovers of privately owned utility companies. Rostenkowski's home city of Chicago is examining whether to use tax-exempt bonds to take over Commonwealth Edison. An aide said Rostenkowski -- who has done other tax favors for the utility -- inserted the provision principally to curb revenue losses from expanding use of the takeover technique nationwide. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), a conferee, opposes the provision. A state-run New York authority is considering using the bonds to launch a $9 billion takeover of the troubled Long Island Lighting Co. Treasury Secretary Baker is backing Rostenkowski on the issue.