Will the New Congress Be Able to Make Any Progress on Tax Reform?

Tax Reform?  Really?
Tax Reform? Really?

After the November 4th elections this year, it was widely expected that Republicans would take a majority in the House and Senate. Republican leaders campaigned toward victories on promises of change, though it is unclear just how much change will actually be accomplished. While the Obama administration has for years been interested in tax reform, particularly concerning American companies using a technique called “inversion” to repatriate their profits, given the GOP’s track record, it is not surprising that many think major changes like a tax reform bill has little chance of reaching the President’s desk. Chances may be slim that real reform is going to get passed, but small-scale reform may still be possible.

The Tax Code’s Just Too Big

While many politicians have a lot to say about a “simplified tax code” on everything from foreign taxation to the Affordable Care Act, chances are slim that any reforms of substance will be passed by the new Congress. Why? Because any attempt to gut the President’s healthcare legislation through the tax code will most certainly be vetoed, and many Republicans quietly like what “Obamacare” has brought to the table.

Add to the threat of veto a general distaste among voters for re-arguing issues (like Roe V. Wade) that have already been settled, and it becomes clear that there will be no grandiose simplifications of the code that many have long clamored for. As a result, any type of innovation regarding the tax code will likely be more incremental reform.

There Isn’t Enough Time, But There Is Opposition

In order to have enough time to enact meaningful tax reform, the new Congress will have to begin almost immediately. Republicans will need to be very quick to lay out their key points for change, any of which could easily ignite Democratic opposition and lead to pushback.  However, many Republicans are eager to show voters that they can indeed govern, which could potentially lead to compromise on these types of issues.

In an ideal world, the subsequent debate would be enough to begin work on a bill that could take until the next election to craft. Before the bill could be passed, however, lobbies benefiting from the status quo would push to delay a vote, or even move political money to opponents to get the innovators out of office. This jockeying won’t affect the president during the final months of his second presidential term, but it would likely cast a pall over any incentive from Congress to proactively push for tax reform.

In short, unless the a President is committed to tax reform in partnership with a willing Congress and had a four-year term (at the least) to outlast entrenched lobbyists focused on keeping things as they are, meaningful tax reform remains a long shot.

So What Chance of Change is There?

Ultimately, it will be up to the Republican majority and the president to set the tone for any potential talk of tax reform. The real question is whether either sides is willing to consider their common ground and take a stand for the greater good, even when that stance might prove to be unpopular. When outgoing Representative Dave Camp (R-MI) brought up tax reform earlier this year, his attempts to bring the focus back to tax reform were dismissed by Speaker John Boehner, who was heard to say “blah blah blah” in response.

In short, if small reform measures can attract the attention span of the new Republican Congress, they might pass. Otherwise, the chances of real tax reform over the next two years are slim.