The Sugar Plums Dancing in Lobbyists’ Heads

Tax-extenders truly are the gifts that keep giving.

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Holiday gift with ornaments

It’s that Holiday time of year. All over the country, people are smiling and wishing each other happy holidays, going to parties and putting lights up on trees and houses. Kids are trying to be cooperative, counting the days until Christmas arrives, and looking forward to opening presents under the tree next Wednesday.

Meanwhile, here in Washington, some grown-ups have a different set of sugar plums dancing in their heads: pretty much every year a package of "temporary" tax extenders hitches a ride to some must-pass bill, granting the hopes and dreams of lobbyists across D.C. and the country. NASCAR track owners hope their special expensing rules will be extended, the wind power industry hopes for an extension of their production tax credit, and Diageo and Bacardi hope that once again, the portion of the rum excise tax that is rebated to the territories will be "temporarily" increased.

Tax-extenders truly are the gifts that keep on giving for lobbyists. Because they are purportedly "temporary," they have to be renewed over and over again, so lobbyists need to be working to make sure the tax-extender package moves. Because these provisions are packaged together, Congress never debates the finer points of each individual break. And despite the "temporary" label, the package always passes, even if they have to make the legislation retroactive. Nice work if you can get it.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

But for taxpayers, the tax extenders package is a recurrent reminder of how tax policies reflect political power and inertia rather than evidence. The special temporary tax provisions for film and television don’t exist because that industry needs tax relief more than any other. The existence of the biodiesel tax credit is not because corn and commodity crops aren’t getting enough federal support elsewhere. Tax extenders exist because these industries work hard to keep them and Congress lets them. While some of the policies passed through the extender package may in fact be evidence-based, that doesn’t justify the whole package. A stopped clock is still right twice a day.

We don’t know what legislation the tax extenders package will hitch a ride on this year, but there are some candidates – the farm bill reauthorization, the omnibus package of all the appropriations bills that will make its way through Congress in January, and, ironically, whatever measure Congress takes to address reaching the debt ceiling.

The hangover from weeks of holiday eating, drinking and gift opening often leads people to resolve themselves to a healthier life in the coming year. Let’s hope Congress can turn over a new leaf and resolve to stop the pattern of passing tax-extender packages without justifying the policies within. Better yet, let’s move on to meaningful, thoughtful, and transparent tax reform.

Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

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