The Rise of Tax Reformers
During the last, frantic day and night sessions of the 92nd Congress, the customary strategy of ramming through special-interest tax loopholes got under way. Under the direction of the powerful Tax Committee Chairmen, Congressman Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.) and Senator Russell Long (D-La.), the bills and their various legislative sponsors were lined up for lightening quick passage through the House and Senate.
In past years, tax breaks or bonanzas for specific companies and industries were routinely passed without opposition. Many legislators either supported such corporate welfare or did not want to alienate senior members by opposing their pet favors. These bills are called “members’ bills” — the “members” usually being those who are on the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees. Chairman Mills further solidifies his power by letting his committee members each have one or two such members’ bills of their own which he maneuvers through the House under a”unanimous consent,” a procedure that insures no debate or dissent. About four weeks ago, numerous members’ tax bills headed toward their usual fate of enactment into law. No committee hearings were held, as usual. No disclosure was given to non-committee members about the nature and cost of these bills. The tactic is to spring the bills on the floor and shove them through in the rush before adjournment.
This year, however, was different. Last spring, tax reformers Henry Reuss (D-Wis.) Les Aspin (D-Wis.) and Wright Patman (D-Texas) had blocked a number of special interest tax bills by refusing an outraged Wilbur Mills’ request for unanimous consent. Among the bills blocked at that time were a $70,000,000 tax cut for banks, sponsored by Wilbur Mills, a multi-million dollar tax break for the cigar industry sponsored by Congressman James Burke (D-Mass.), and a lush tax cut for the C. Brewer & Sons Sugar Company of Hawaii, sponsored by Congressman Spark Matsunaga (D-Hawaii).
Reacting to this earlier rebellion in the House, Senator Long planned to attach all his own undisclosed committee members’ tax bills to a single House-passed bill. Senator Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.) took to the Senate floor to ask Long about the planned amendment: “All I want to find out is what they do, how much money they will cost, and whom they benefit.”
Long didn’t want to tell. Finally, on the day of the Senate vote, he revealed the cost of the 13 committee “Christmas tree” tax benefits: well over $200,000,000. (That is more than is annually budgeted for the entire federal court system.)
Senators Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) and William Proxmire (D-Wis.) prepared to block the Christmas tree gifts, with Proxmire declaring to a surprised Senator Long: “I’m going to object, and fight and oppose as long as I can, any amendments called up on the floor that have not had hearings, and we have not had a report, where we can determine there is going to be a revenue loss.”
Senator Proxmire then blocked the most expensive tax benefits, including $100,000,000 for the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation and $70,000,000 for the banking industry. The Senate Finance Committee had considered these in secret session without allowing for any public hearings.
The remaining Christmas tree bill, shorn of its most expensive gifts, was now ready for a conference with the House to iron out differences between the two bills. There again it was opposed by the tax reformers. Recognizing his defeat, Chairman Mills took to the House floor: “I understand that there is objection,” he said. “And, frankly, I don’t care.” The bill was defeated.
The rise of the tax reformers in both houses to challenge powerful chairmen who have long had their way on these special tax bills suggests that next year a predicted deliberation over fundamental tax reform may be something more than a camouflage behind which more tax loopholes are created. The struggle for tax equity may reach new plateaus in 1973.