At Taxpayers for Common Sense, were thrilled when Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, announced that the Senate Finance Committee – on which Baucus is the chairman and Hatch the ranking Republican – would be starting from a "blank slate" in reforming the nation's tax code: For any tax break to remain in the code, supporters have to make the case that their favored tax preference is actually good policy. The beauty of this zero-based approach is it puts protectors of the status quo on the defensive.
But we were less than thrilled when we heard the next procedural step they decided to take: They solicited comments and arguments for keeping individual provisions in the code from their fellow Senators and promised to keep those suggestions secret for 50 years. They even promised to go to such lengths as to provide every submission a unique identifier, password protect the files, and keep paper copies in a locked safe. You'd think they were protecting the recipe for Coke or some other trademarked secret and not the basic, most fundamental information that allows for an informed democracy.
As taxpayers and as voters we absolutely have a right to know what policies our elected representatives believe are worth fighting for – in fact it is exactly those positions that inform our decision about whom we elect. There is simply no good reason to keep these suggestions secret – it presumes the American people can't handle the truth, or worse, that lawmakers are worried about being caught between their constituents and their campaign contributors. And in the back rooms of secret legislative deal making, special interests are more likely than ordinary taxpayers to have lobbyists working every angle, walking the halls of Congress to make sure their bottom lines are protected. In fact, we know from recent lobby reports that lobbyists have been working overtime to try to influence the Congress to maintain or improve existing tax breaks.
Our conviction that this important debate must be public inspired us to pull together a group of ideologically diverse organizations to call on Baucus and Hatch to make tax reform correspondence available to the public in real time. In addition to Taxpayers for Common Sense, the letter was signed by Americans for Prosperity, Tax Justice Network USA, Tax Analysts, Society for Professional Journalists, Domini Social Investments and 24 other groups.
While we have not received a response from Baucus and Hatch, at least four senators have made their proposals public. Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo. released the letters they submitted to the Finance Committee promptly after submitting them. The other 96 members of the Senate should follow this example and release their correspondence with the Finance Committee immediately. And, if for some reason they chose not to submit written comments to the Committee, they should let the public know that as well.
Tax reform is too important for secrecy and backroom deals. If taxpayers are to have confidence that Congress is looking out for the public good and not narrow special interests that can afford powerful lobbyists, our elected leaders need to do their work in the light of day.