An army of lobbyists has been mobilizing in the halls of Congress over recent months in anticipation of what could be a monumental struggle later this year over reforming the tax code.
While the standoff over sequester spending cuts and other budget battles have been grabbing headlines, momentum has quietly been building toward a once-in-a-generation push to overhaul federal taxes, an effort that would likely affect nearly every family and business.
Tax reform edged closer to center stage in recent days after President Obama opened conversations with Republicans over a deal to tackle the federal deficit. A broad rewrite of the tax code could figure in such an agreement, along with cuts in such entitlement programs as Medicare and other changes in federal spending.
The prospect of a tax overhaul has already kicked the capital’s influence industry into high gear. From corporate chiefs and hedge fund lobbyists to Montana ranchers and Broadway producers, the players have already begun their campaigns, pressing for everything from lowering the corporate tax rate to preserving cherished deductions and, in some instances, inserting new tax loopholes into law.
Much of that energy is being directed at a hectic suite of cramped, nondescript offices in the 80-year-old Longworth House Office Building, where eight staffers on the Ways and Means Committee are sifting through possible changes to the nation’s tax code of nearly 4 million words.
Eager to help is a steady stream of lobbyists, like Duane Musser of the National Roofing Contractors Association, who stopped by the offices on a recent Wednesday afternoon to argue his case that commercial roofs should be granted faster depreciation for tax purposes. “Everything is on the table,” he said.
Lobbying over the tax code has more than tripled since Obama took office, disclosure records show. And the pace of activity accelerated toward the end of last year amid the fight over the “fiscal cliff,” as lawmakers from both parties sought to turn the struggle over tax rates into a discussion about overhauling the tax code.
About 440 corporations and business groups spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying Congress and executive branch agencies on tax reform in the third quarter of last year, a Washington Post analysis shows. And that number continued to rise in the final three months of the year, up nearly 10 percent, the analysis shows.
The firms are a who’s who of corporate America, from Apple to Wal-Mart, Boeing to Citigroup. More than 125 Washington lobbying and law firms are engaged in the effort, including those employing high-profile names like former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former U.S. senators Trent Lott and John Breaux, and power lobbyists Tony and Heather Podesta.
“You have the president, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, the chair of Senate Finance and other congressional leaders identifying the need for tax reform and starting work on it,” said Matt Miller, vice president for tax and fiscal policy at the Business Roundtable, a group of chief executives that has been extensively lobbying. “That’s what is driving this ramped-up effort.”
Obama called for “bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform” in his State of the Union speech, and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said recently that overhauling the tax code is one of the highest priorities.
The powerful chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committee — Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) — have each vowed to pursue a tax code rewrite this year. Aides to both panels say activity is accelerating, with Ways and Means recently setting up 11 bipartisan working groups to pursue the issue further.
Any number of political obstacles could derail the effort. The parties, for example, differ sharply on what tax reform means: Republicans focus on streamlining the tax code to help businesses compete. Democrats, too, seek simplification, but some also want to raise more tax revenue, partly from the wealthy.
Yet there is general agreement that the tax code’s unwieldy web of deductions and credits should be scaled back and simplified, perhaps dramatically. That would put into play highly popular yet expensive benefits. For individuals, as an example: deductions for mortgage interest and charitable donations. For companies: credits for research costs and provisions that allow firms to defer U.S. taxes on profits earned by foreign subsidiaries.
Array of interest groups
While companies and business associations account for the vast majority of the lobbying, a variety of other groups such as unions and educational institutions is also involved, disclosure records show, and a wide array of taxes and exemptions is potentially up for grabs.