The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dave Camp just made Paul Ryan’s tax-reform plan impossible

Here's a pro tip when reporting on policymakers: Read official communications, very, very carefully.

This is a horribly unpleasant rule. I break it all the time. The thing about reading official statements from politicians is that they're excruciatingly boring. Every word is worked over until the document is a pallid mush, devoid of anything that could cause even the slightest controversy, or arouse even the vaguest flicker of interest.

This is even truer when multiple politicians come together over the same document. In that case, their staffs have gone back-and-forth so many times that any remotely interesting line one party didn't nix, the other surely did. An enormous number of man hours goes into making these documents as boring as they typically are.

But the upside is that these documents, because they're so carefully vetted, typically mean the very little that they say. If news is made, it was meant to be made. But it's often missed because the document is so boring that nobody reads it. Many is the time when I've asked what I thought was an explosive question of an aide or a congressman only to have them refer me to paragraph 13 of a six-month-old op-ed.

The joint Max Baucus/Dave Camp op-ed on tax reform is interesting for two reason. The first is what's in it. The second is what's not in it.

The tax reform goals set out in Rep. Paul Ryan's budget would be impossible to achieve while maintaining the tax code's current level of progressivity. But the detailed tax reform instructions in the budget do not require House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp to maintain progressivity. So that looked to be the trick: Republicans would pay for their tax cuts by shifting the burden down toward the middle class.

The Camp/Baucus op-ed, however, explicitly disavows that escape hatch:

We've agreed that tax reform should result in a system that is as progressive as the current one. Tax reform will close special-interest loopholes to help lower rates. We will ensure that low-income and middle-income Americans will pay no more taxes than they do under current law.

This seems like a big deal. It would appear to make the tax reform plan in the Ryan budget utterly impossible. I asked Len Burman, the incoming director of the Tax Policy Center, whether he read it the same way. "That statement doesn’t necessarily protect refundable tax credits, which Republicans don’t like very much," he replied. "I’m sure Baucus is committed to preserving the EITC and refundable child tax credit, or something equivalent, however, and I know that Camp really wants to get tax reform, so I do think it is a big deal."

And yes, he said, "this makes Ryan’s original plan infeasible."

The interesting omission, as I noted in my earlier piece on Baucus, is the word "revenues." It doesn't say, as Camp surely wanted, that tax reform will be "revenue-neutral." But it also does not say that tax reform will raise revenues. As has been Baucus's publicly expressed preference, that issue has been tabled for later.