Overhauling the Tax Code With 'Max and Dave'

Nancy Cook

After months of trying to convince fellow lawmakers that tax reform was crucial and inevitable, Congress’s top tax-writers took their message to the Internet Thursday in hopes of building public support for their efforts.

Their newly unveiled website, taxreform.gov, encourages people to share stories and ideas for rejiggering the tax code with “Max and Dave,” better known in Washington as Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Dave Camp, D-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

If people do not want to share anecdotes, they can follow along with the new Twitter account known as “@simplertaxes.” Or, they can peruse the no-frills site (this is no BuzzFeed) to read various proposals for taxing small businesses, financial instruments, global corporations, or business investments.

The campaign is modeled after one that sparked the momentum for the 1986 overhaul of the tax code—the last time Congress took a serious scalpel to tax rates and breaks. Then, the Democratic chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Dan Rostenkowski, went on television to sell tax reform to the American people.

He talked about it as a necessary step to ensure that everyone paid their fair share of taxes, drawing upon stories from his Polish upbringing in working-class Chicago. Toward the end of his appearance, he asked Americans to send in letters in support of tax reform to Congress in a campaign later dubbed “Write Rosty,” after the chairman’s nickname. He received 75,000 letters, according to the book Showdown at Gucci Gulch, the seminal account of the 1986 legislation.

The Camp and Baucus website is a modern-day stab at re-creating this campaign and swell of popular support, at a time when polls indicate that Americans’ top concern remains job creation and the state of the economy.

Of course, the political landscape and the cast of characters involved in tax legislation has changed since the 1986 act. In the 1980s, the tax-reform effort began in the White House with President Reagan. Congressional leaders like Rostenkowski originally got on board in an effort to avoid being overshadowed by the president. The Treasury Department also produced two working papers in the years leading up to the ’86 act, which provided much of the technical guidance and foundation for the legislation—something that has not been done by the current Treasury Department.

The White House is not nearly as engaged this time, either, though President Obama has expressed interest in doing revenue-neutral tax reform. He also included in his recent budget blueprint a few small ideas about taxing financial products, courtesy of Camp.

This time, Camp and Baucus want to direct the effort to overhaul the tax code from Congress instead of Pennsylvania Avenue. “It’s hard to repeat history exactly. There is always a twist,” Camp told National Journal.

Yet, it remains to be seen if both House and Senate leadership are as enamored of tax reform as the two top tax-writers are, and the longer the process drags out, the less likely it becomes politically palatable, as Congress inches closer to the 2014 mid-term election when politicians will be less willing to take tough votes.

In addition, Americans are not unified on how they view the tax code, or how it might be improved. Just 55 percent of Americans called their tax bills fair as of mid-April, according to Gallup polling. Yet, Democratic and Republican voters dislike the code for different reasons. Democrats were overwhelmingly irritated by the idea that wealthy people do not pay a fair share of taxes, according to polling from December 2011 by the Pew Research Center, whereas the majority of Republicans cited the code’s complexity as the major issue.