The loneliness of a tax reformer

WASHINGTON — Dave Camp stood alone.

The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee had toiled for years to prepare the first rewrite of American tax laws in more than a quarter-century. Now in his last year with the gavel, he was finally ready to unveil his 1,000-page plan.

But when the earnest lawmaker announced his proposal at a news conference in a Capitol TV studio Wednesday, Camp had nobody at his side. Democrats had abandoned his effort last year. The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, had pronounced Camp’s proposal dead. And House Speaker John Boehner, asked about the details, responded: “Blah, blah, blah, blah.” Asked a follow-up about the likelihood of a vote on the proposal, Boehner replied, “Ah, Jesus.”

Even Jesus, it would seem, could not pass tax reform this year. Democrats and Republicans agree that such a rewrite is long overdue, but last week made it obvious: Congress may have the ways and the means to get it done, but it lacks the heart and the guts.

I pity Camp, a soft-spoken Michigan Republican who labored for this worthy cause even as he battled cancer. At Camp’s news conference, the first questioner, The Associated Press’ Stephen Ohlemacher, noted the McConnell and Boehner remarks and asked: “Do you feel like you’re being undercut?”

“No, I don’t,” said Camp, who, if he had been undercut any deeper, wouldn’t have been visible above the lectern.

The saddest part is it probably didn’t have to be this way. There is bipartisan appetite for something very much like what Camp proposed — coupling lower tax rates with an end to tax loopholes and giveaways to the well-connected, all without reducing the progressivity of the tax code. Unfortunately, the chairman, for all his admirable policy work, deserves some of the blame for the failure to make it happen by allowing politics to consume his committee and to dictate the timing of his tax plan.

At the start of 2013, Camp divided his committee into bipartisan working groups, and lawmakers discovered an encouraging amount of agreement on tax reform. Camp scheduled a series of town hall meetings for the summer with his Democratic counterpart in the Senate, Max Baucus.

But in the spring, the IRS targeting flap exploded, followed by the trouble with the Obamacare rollout — and the agenda of the committee shifted dramatically. The Ways and Means hearing calendar since May tells the story: Three on the IRS targeting, three on Obamacare, and one each on trade and multinational corporations. Subcommittees joined the rush to probe the administration. Lost, for the most part, was tax reform. Committee Republicans say this didn’t slow the development of the bill (that was being done by different staff) but it embittered the Democratic minority.

In July, Democrats on the panel met with Camp and said they’d like to draft tax legislation with him. But they were told that any agreement could not include additional tax revenue and would have to include a top tax rate of 25 percent for individuals and corporations. Democrats walked. In hindsight, his insistence on the 25 percent rate was needless because the plan he eventually proposed includes a 35 percent “surcharge” rate.

Camp had planned to move the tax bill through his committee in the fall but again, politics intervened. This time, the problems with were causing trouble for Obama and the Democrats, and Republican House leaders didn’t want anything to distract from that story. Camp relented, Republicans exploited the Obamacare troubles, and hope for new tax laws died.

By the time Camp finally released his proposal, it was too late. House GOP leaders declined to endorse the plan, or to commit to a vote. “We are going to continue to have conversations,” was all Boehner would promise. The speaker last year had reserved the title of “H.R. 1” for tax-reform legislation, but Camp’s bill reportedly won’t be granted that symbolic honor, and it’s not even clear that his own committee will approve it.

The best Camp can hope for now is that he’ll be granted a waiver to extend his chairmanship into next year, when the post-election atmosphere might be friendlier to his proposal. Or perhaps he’ll watch as his successor, likely either Paul Ryan or Kevin Brady, picks up the pieces.

Tax reform might have failed over the last year even if Camp hadn’t allowed his beloved proposal to be subordinated to his colleagues’ desires to embarrass the Obama administration. But at least it would have had a chance.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.

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