by Linda Beale
Max Baucus announced to his fellow Senators today that he will not seek re-election to the Senate in 2014. He has been the top Democrat on the Finance Committee since 2001. See Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus Won’t Run Again in 2014, Bloomberg.net (Apr. 23, 2013).
As someone who thinks that Baucus has been a hindrance to progressive reform of the tax code and financial regulation, I must admit that I do not find his retirement a loss. His chairmanship of the Finance Committee has been marked by a failure to understand the most important issues related to federal income and estate taxation and by adoption of positions that are too favorable to Big Money and Big Business (especially Big Banks). He has been tone-deaf, in other words, to the class warfare waged by the right against the middle class and the resulting growth in inequality in the country that has been worsened by the current tax provisions that support redistribution upwards to the very wealthiest owners of financial assets and businesses. In particular, he has failed to use his position to push for reasonable reform of the capital gains preference and the wealth-favoring versions of the estate tax passed by the Bush administration. He has refused to consider a reasonable financial transactions tax. In fact, Baucus was too willing to go along with the initial passage of the Bush tax agenda in 2001-2004, and he did nothing to ensure that the Bush tax cuts would fade into oblivion on the sunset date. In fact, he worked to make permanent almost all the Bush tax cuts and supported the corporate-friendly “extension” of the broad menu of corporate tax cut provisions (including a retroactive extension of the R&D credit, which cannot possibly serve the purpose it is claimed to serve when enacted retroactively). The tradeoff provided only token items on the progressive menu.
Of course, the Republicans will cast Baucus’ choice to retire as a reflection of problems for Democrats. See the Bloomberg News article cited above, in which Rob Collins of the National Republican Senatorial Committee says as much. I suspect that Baucus knew he would be targeted by liberal Democrats for his failure to vote for gun control and for his failure to support progressive tax policies.
That said, he remains as Finance Chair through 2014, and he has said he intends to produce a rewrite of the tax code. He is the wrong person to do that, and so it is important that other Democrats relegate him to a position of less influence in order to come up with more progressive changes than he would support.
Is Ron Wyden (who would become the most senior member of the Finance Committee when Baucus leaves) capable of carrying the banner of progressivism? His emphasis on “tax simplification” is worrisome, because it suggests that he does not understand the relationship between complexity in the tax code and sophistication of taxpayers to whom the complexity applies. The main reasons for complexity are two-fold: (i) existing tax rules are expanded to cover abusive schemes developed by sophisticated tax advisers (attorneys and accountants), and (ii) existing tax rules are riddled with exceptions to provide subsidies (tax expenditures) favoring industries represented by heavy lobbying.
To the extent that tax simplification reduces the anti-abuse rules needed to prevent various tax scams and manipulation, simplication is a policy mistake. To the extent that simplication results in changes to the tax expenditures, it can be useful but it is often also mistaken, because the easiest way to “simplify” such rules is to expand them to cover even more of heavily lobbied-for industries. Wyden needs to expand his understanding of the relationship between simplification as a goal and fair allocation of resources to the extent that resource allocation is handled through tax expenditures in the Code, reasonable rules to ensure that the most sophisticated taxpayers pay their fair share, and fair distribution of the tax burden. Baucus did not serve the publci well in regards to these issues. Let’s hope that Wyden does better.