Earlier this month, I hailed a new approach to tax reform taken by Senators Max Baucus and Orrin Hatch. Instead of having debates about what tax credits and deductions to eliminate, Baucus and Hatch proposed to start with zero and force their colleagues to defend any desired tax breaks from scratch. An open debate on each and every tax break would not only require Senators to take a close look at the impact of the exemptions, it would also force Senators to publicly stand behind those arguments.
Or so I thought. Instead, Baucus and Hatch have promised their colleagues that their suggestions will be hermetically sealed in a mayonnaise jar and left on Funk & Wagnall’s doorstep … for fifty years (via Instapundit):
The Senate’s top tax writers have promised their colleagues 50 years worth of secrecy in exchange for suggestions on what deductions and credits to preserve in tax reform.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), assured lawmakers that any submission they receive will be kept under lock and key by the committee and the National Archives until the end of 2064.
Deeming the submissions confidential, the Senate’s top tax writers have said only certain staff members — 10 in all — will get direct access to a senator’s written suggestions. Each submission will also be given its own ID number and be kept on password-protected servers, with printed versions kept in locked safes.
The promise of confidentiality was revealed just two days before the deadline for senators to participate in the Finance Committee’s “blank slate” process, which puts the onus on lawmakers to argue for what credits and deductions should be kept in a streamlined tax code.
Fifty years? Do FISA court rulings stay secret that long? Perhaps this is just a get-off-my-damn-lawn moment, but I recall when members of the legislative branch complained that the executive branch kept military and intelligence secrets classified for too long and at too high a level.
On the plus side, this is the US Senate. Some of these people will still be around in 50 years to answer for their efforts. Maybe we should just hold elections every 50 years, too, and that way the rest of us can know what our elected representatives are doing on the super-sensitive work of tax policy.
In my original post and column for The Week, while applauding the novel thinking behind the Baucus-Hatch approach, I wrote that it was still doomed to failure:
Most of these credits, deductions, and exemptions are very popular. The power to create them is very popular on Capitol Hill and the White House, and in both political parties in the Beltway. As long as that power exists — as it will in the current income-tax system, regardless of how pared down it may get once a generation — politicians will use it. That means a reformed tax system won’t stay that way for very long, even when politicians have the best of intentions. Or perhaps it’s better say especially when they have the best of intentions.
Real reform would be to get rid of the current income-tax structure altogether, in a manner that ensured Congress couldn’t restore it, either by leaps or by increments. That would take a constitutional amendment to require a flat tax with no deductions, credits, or exemptions, or to eliminate the income tax altogether with a repeal of the 16th Amendment and create a consumption tax instead. The latter would eliminate the IRS and its abuses, while the former would render it incapable of real malice and bias. If we want to see truly innovative and courageous reform with the goal of eliminating abuses of power, those are the only real paths that guarantee results that endure.
The 50-years-of-omerta promise shows just how true that is. Not only do they love the power, they also want to use that power to keep voters from discovering just how much they love it. There hasn’t been a better argument made for a constitutional amendment to either go to a flat tax or getting rid of the income tax system altogether.