Tax Analysts Blog

Congress Gives Up on Paying for Extenders . . . And That's Fine

Posted on Dec 1, 2015

Nothing is certain in Washington, of course, but it appears that congressional leaders are on the verge of a major deal that would at least partially relieve the annual burden of passing so-called tax extenders. A massive proposal that would permanently extend the research credit, the expanded EITC, and section 179 expensing is in the works. But nothing is free in Washington either. Some organizations are decrying the $700 billion price tag and calling the potential compromise irresponsible. While laudable, this criticism misses the mark.

There is no denying that the potential extenders bill would be expensive and that the package would not contain many offsets, particularly to the main provisions dealing with research, expensing, and some individual tax credits. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says the true cost of the emerging legislation could be over $2 trillion by 2035. The group points out that new deficit spending would increase interest spending and that permanent provisions would have costs beyond the usual 10-year budget window.

The deficit hawks are right. Any deal that makes extenders permanent without offsets would technically add to the deficit. But is permanent extension of these tax expenditures any less responsible than the annual, unpaid-for bills Congress slaps together late in a session or after the provisions have expired? Congress routinely extends these provisions without paying for them, either annually or every other year. This adds to the deficit just as much as permanent extension.

And a permanent solution to the bigger extenders would have some financial benefits, beyond allowing businesses certainty for planning. Because Congress routinely deals with extenders at the last possible moment (and sometimes beyond it), there isn't much time for real scrutiny. Many of these expenditures are simply rolled into a larger package without anyone asking whether they are still needed or cost effective. Under the emerging compromise, at least a few of these extenders would be allowed to expire permanently. The ones most in danger now are the wind production credit and, somewhat surprisingly, bonus depreciation, both of which would be phased out over the next five years. Republicans have hinted that others might be allowed to expire.

The deal isn't certain yet, and it might even get bigger. Democrats and Republicans are still feuding over how to police refundable tax credits, particularly the EITC. And Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin G. Hatch would like to address the ACA's "Cadillac" tax. Also, it's not clear whether extenders would move on their own or as part of an omnibus budget bill. But there is more confidence today than a few weeks ago.

The rise in partisanship has made it hard for Congress to get much done in the last eight years. Divided government hasn't helped. Lawmakers have a limited amount of time and political energy (let's ignore for a moment that these weaknesses are entirely self-inflicted). Ending the interminable debate over a permanent research credit or the expanded EITC would help Congress focus on bigger issues.

Congress certainly isn't controlled by deficit hawks at the moment, but groups that are decrying this deal because it isn't paid for aren't looking at the larger picture. We were never going to pay for an extension of the research credit, the expanded EITC, or most other extenders. Taking a few of the most popular extenders off the table by making them permanent would only help with a limited legislative calendar, which could give some juice to tax reform efforts or at least end the silly end-of-the-year, Mock Turtle-like dance Congress has performed for most of the last 30 years.

Read Comments (4)

edmund dantesDec 1, 2015

I agree, there should be no temporary tax provisions, ever. It's immoral, and
it's make-work for the tax preparation industry. What's more, the projections
of "costs" and "revenues" in these deliberations never make much sense if you
try to pick them apart. For example, look at the $billions projected to be lost
by the 3-week window for charitable IRA rollovers last year. There's no
realistic way to justify that outcome.

MIKE55Dec 1, 2015

Great article - I agree with each point. On a less relevant note, I'd like to
add that if this actually passes I'll become as much as 20% less cynical.
Legislators will have done something that harms their ability to get reelected
(tax extenders are one of the best fundraising tools available to incumbents)
in order to do something good for the country as a whole. And right before
Christmas no less! Perhaps there is a Santa Claus after all.....

chuckyDec 2, 2015

I'll miss the opportunity when all the world's eyes are on legislature and
president and their last-minute efforts to cobble something together some
budget trick. I don't think the public can concentrate our disappointment if
this practice becomes routine year-round.

AMTbuffDec 2, 2015

Finally someone gets it. Extenders have always been kabuki. It's long past time
to get real about the fiscal gap.

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