Democrats Prepare to Move on Tax Priorities in April

March 25, 2019, 8:45 AM

Ways and Means Democrats have rolled out a series of tax hearings since they took control of the House in January. That’s easy enough.

The more difficult task for the House Ways and Means Committee begins now, as Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), its chairman, embarks on committee votes for legislation he hopes to advance.

It isn’t clear what tax policy goals committee Democrats will be able to check off in a divided Congress. But the Democratic majority in the House gives the tax-writing committee leverage to try to move forward on its goals.

A measure to retool the Internal Revenue Service that passed the House passed in the last Congress is the favorite candidate for an early April markup, along with legislation to boost retirement savings. Temporary tax breaks—known as extenders—and tax relief measures for disaster-stricken areas could also get consideration, although the conversations are still in flux, according to lobbyists familiar with discussions.

Jorge Castro, a former House Democratic tax aide, said that the first markup under Neal as chairman will set a tone for the future, making it important to monitor.

“Neal understands tax legislation that goes through regular order will only be strengthened after going through the committee markup process, which will only bolster the position of the House of Representatives when negotiating with the Senate,” Castro, now a member at Miller & Chevalier Chartered, said in an email. This would be especially true if the legislation is bipartisan, he said.

Other markup possibilities—such as fixing an error in the 2017 tax law that has kept retailers and restaurants from enjoying immediate expensing for facility improvements—will likely have to wait until later in the year, said sources familiar with discussions. That’s because Democrats remain unwilling to fix errors in the law and would use the opportunity to change something else in the tax code in return.

The committee markup would likely take place on April 2. Neal is expected to take more time to speak with the panel’s members the week of March 25.

Progress So Far

The full committee will hold a hearing March 27 on the tax law and “who it left behind.” The committee didn’t return a request to comment.

Neal and the Democratic subcommittee chairs have methodically gone about holding hearings on various aspects of tax policy since the beginning of the year. That is part of Neal’s goal to re-examine the 2017 tax law, and to return to what he call “regular order.”

Other topics discussed include temporary tax policy, infrastructure, challenges for the middle class, the current tax filing season, and President Donald Trump’s 2020 budget proposal.

Tax Day Energy

The last day of the current tax filing season is April 15, commonly known as Tax Day.

Democrats may decide to seize on the day’s energy to amplify their criticisms of the tax law and the pace and size of tax refunds this year. The number of tax refunds issued so far this filing season is 3 percent lower than in the same period last year, according to the latest data.

Democratic messaging that day will likely revolve around how they see the tax overhaul as benefiting the rich, said Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

“I think the interesting question is how much are they going to talk about taxing the rich, how much are they going to talk about turning the benefits towards low and moderate income people,” he said.

Neal is under pressure from progressive groups to ask for Trump’s tax returns, which the law allows him to do. He has previously been resistant to put a timeline on the request, and has said that it has to “stand up under the magnifying glass of critical analysis.” He could decide to request Trump’s returns around the time of Tax Day, when the focus on tax filing peaks.

Before the passage of the 2017 tax law, Republicans would use Tax Day to rail against the complexity of the tax code. They used last year’s Tax Day, the first since the overhaul, to praise the changes. And former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch’s office posted a video of the Utah Republican literally shredding the old code page by page.

IRS and Retirement

The House in 2018 passed legislative packages to retool the IRS more than once. A package (H.R. 5444) passed in April stalled in the Senate because some lawmakers didn’t like a provision that would protect low-income taxpayers from the agency’s private debt collection program.

At the end of the year, the House included a tax administration bill, with some tweaks, in a broader lame-duck package (amendment to H.R. 88). But the broader package didn’t have the support of enough Democratic lawmakers. The House also voted on a standalone IRS bill (H.R. 7227) to boost its chances in the Senate. The five-week government shutdown extinguished any chance of passage.

The retirement package in question is a bipartisan idea that has been in circulation for nearly a decade. Ways and Means Committee members Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) and Ron Kind (D-Wis.) reintroduced a bill (H.R. 1007) in February that included retirement tax breaks and regulatory changes.

Neal told Bloomberg Tax in January that he hoped to spend the first half of the session “strengthening retirement savings.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Kaustuv Basu in Washington at kbasu@bloombergtax.com; Allyson Versprille in Washington at aversprille@bloombergtax.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Patrick Ambrosio at pambrosio@bloombergtax.com; Colleen Murphy at cmurphy@bloombergtax.com

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