Republicans are demanding a deficit-reduction package that’s entirely spending cuts. Democrats insist that revenues must also be included.
Are these positions completely irreconcilable? Not if both sides are willing to attack the spending hidden in our tax code.
I explore this idea for finding common ground in a new essay in National Affairs, “Spending in Disguise”:
A great deal of government spending is hidden in the federal tax code in the form of deductions, credits, and other preferences that seem like they let taxpayers keep their own money but are actually spending in disguise. Those preferences complicate the code and often needlessly distort family and business decisions. Their magnitude raises the possibility of a dramatic reform of the tax code—making it simpler, fairer, and more pro-growth—that would amount to both cutting spending and increasing government revenue at once, and without raising tax rates.
Such a reform would not eliminate the need for serious spending cuts, of course, nor would it take tax increases off the table. But it could dramatically improve the government’s fiscal outlook and make the task of budget negotiators far easier. It will only be possible, however, if we clearly understand how spending is hidden in the tax code and what reformers might do about it—if we see that tax policy and spending policy are not always as distinct as we might think.
In short, there is a deal to be done in which revenues go up solely because spending in the tax code goes down.
The trillion-dollar question is whether President Obama, Speaker Boehner, and Leader Reid can cut that deal by August 2nd. If not, one side will have to cave on a core principle (no prize for guessing which party that’s likely to be), or we will find out just how painful it really is to run out of fresh borrowing room.