How Washington Profits From “Tax Extenders”

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Posted: Dec 13, 2018 10:39 AM
How Washington Profits From “Tax Extenders”

Since I’m a proponent of tax reform, I don’t like special favors in the tax code.

Deductions, exemptions, credits, exclusions, and other preferences are back-door forms of cronyism and government intervention.

Indeed, they basically exist to lure people into making decisions that otherwise aren’t economically rational.

These distortionary provisions help to explain why we have a hopelessly convoluted and deeply corrupt tax code of more than 75,000 pages.

And they also encourage higher tax rates as greedy politicians seek alternative sources of revenue.

This current debate over “tax extenders” is a sad illustration of why the system is such a mess.

Writing for Reason, Veronique de Rugy explains how special interests work the system.

Tax extenders are temporary and narrowly targeted tax provisions for individuals and businesses. Examples include the deductibility of mortgage-insurance premiums and tax credits for coal produced from reserves owned by Native American tribes. …These tax provisions were last authorized as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which retroactively extended them through the end of 2017, after which they have thus far been left to remain expired. If Congress indeed takes up extenders during the current lame-duck session, any extended provisions are likely to once again apply retroactively through the end of 2018, or perhaps longer. There are several problems with this approach to tax policy. Frequently allowing tax provisions to expire before retroactively reauthorizing them creates uncertainty that undermines any potential benefits from incentivizing particular behaviors.

To make matters more complicated, a few of the extenders are good policy because they seek to limit double taxation (a pervasive problem in the U.S. tax system).

…not all tax extenders are a problem. Some are meant to avoid or limit the double taxation of income that’s common in our tax code. Those extenders should be preserved. Yet others are straightforward giveaways to special interests. Those should be eliminated.

Veronique suggests a sensible approach.

It’s time for a new approach under which tax extenders are evaluated and debated on their individual merits. The emphasis should be on eliminating special-interest handouts or provisions that otherwise represent bad policy. Conversely, any and all worthy provisions should be made permanent features of the tax code. …The dire need to fix the federal budget, along with the dysfunctional effects from extenders, should provide the additional motivation needed to end this practice once and for all.

Needless to say, Washington is very resistant to sensible policies.

In part, that’s for the typical “public choice” reasons (i.e., special interests getting into bed with politicians to manipulate the system).

But the debate over extenders is even sleazier than that.

As Howard Gleckman explained for Forbes, lobbyists, politicians, and other insiders relish temporary provisions because they offer more than one bite at the shakedown apple.

If you are a lobbyist, this history represents scalps on your belt (and client fees in your pocket). If you are a member of Congress, it is the gift that keeps on giving—countless Washington reps and their clients attending endless fundraisers, all filling your campaign coffers, election after election. An indelible image: It is pre-dawn in September, 1986. House and Senate tax writers have just completed their work on the Tax Reform Act.  A lobbyist friend sits forlornly in the corner of the majestic Ways & Means Committee hearing room. “What’s wrong,” I naively ask, “Did you lose some stuff?” Oh no, he replies, he got three client amendments in the bill. And that was the problem. After years of billable hours, his gravy train had abruptly derailed. The client got what it wanted. Permanently. And it no longer needed him. Few make that mistake now. Lawmakers, staffs, and lobbyists have figured out how to keep milking the cash cow. There are now five dozen temporary provisions, all of which need to be renewed every few years. To add to the drama, Congress often lets them expire so it can step in at the last minute to retroactively resurrect the seemingly lifeless subsidies.

In other words, the temporary nature of extenders is a feature, not a bug.

This is a perfect (albeit depressing) example of how the federal government is largely a racket. It enriches insiders (as I noted a few days ago) and the rest of us bear the cost.

All of which reinforces my wish that we could rip up the tax code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax. Not only would we get more growth, we would eliminate a major avenue for D.C. corruption.

P.S. I focused today on the perverse process, but I can’t help but single out the special tax break for electric vehicles, which unquestionably is one of the most egregious tax extenders.

EV tax credits…subsidize the wealthy at the expense of the lower and middle classes. Recent research by Dr. Wayne Winegarden of the Pacific Research Institute shows that 79 percent of EV tax credits were claimed by households with adjusted gross incomes greater than $100,000. Asking struggling Americans to subsidize the lifestyles of America’s wealthiest is perverse… Voters also shouldn’t be fooled by the promise of large environmental benefits. Modern internal combustion engines emit very little pollution compared to older models. Electric vehicles are also only as clean as the electricity that powers them, which in the United States primarily comes from fossil fuels.

was hoping that provisions such as the EV tax credit would get wiped out as part of tax reform. Alas, it survived.

I don’t like when politicians mistreat rich people, but I get far more upset when they do things that impose disproportionate costs on poor people. This is one of the reasons I especially dislike government flood insurance, Social Securitygovernment-run lotteries, the Export-Import Bank, the mortgage interest deduction, or the National Endowment for the Arts. Let’s add the EV tax credit to this shameful list.