Campaign Chatter Signals That Tax Overhaul Isn’t Dead Yet

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By Laura Davison

Nov. 7 — Tax policy may have not gotten the robust debate this election cycle some had hoped for, with the discussion gravitating toward the presidential candidates’ tax liabilities and their tax-exempt family foundations.

But Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump have discussed their visions for changing the tax code just enough to keep policy people hopeful that the winner will have enough interest in tax policy to work with lawmakers on some plans being discussed on Capitol Hill.

“During the election there has been markedly little time spent talking about tax policy of two candidates. Their policy prescriptions are diametrically opposed, but the big front-page stories about the plans never happened,” Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow in the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, said Nov. 7. “That’s too bad, because both of these candidates are proposing to do interesting things.”

The number of references to taxes made during the presidential debates—129—is about average when compared to presidential campaigns since the 1970s. However, taxes have been more top-of-mind this cycle compared to when President Barack Obama ran in 2008 and 2012, Marc Gerson, a member at Miller & Chevalier Chartered, told Bloomberg BNA.

Trump’s tax plan, which has undergone several sets of revisions, includes lowering tax rates for individuals and businesses. Clinton’s plan raises taxes on some of the highest earners and introduces some new family-focused credits.

Speak Up

“If you want to do something like major changes to the tax code, you have to talk about it in the campaign. You have to create public support,” Gleckman said. “Without support from the White House, tax reform is never going to happen.”

The Obama administration had other priorities that didn’t include tax overhaul, said Gerson, who worked as a Republican tax counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee during the George W. Bush administration. Those pushing for big tax changes are waiting to observe the next president’s emphasis on taxes in the first-100-day agenda and in an acceptance speech, he said.

How candidates talk about taxes matters, said Kyle Pomerleau, director of federal projects at the Tax Foundation. The plan specifics usually aren’t important, but their general ideas set the tone for what they will pursue, he said.

“Obama in 2008 and 2012 hardly talked about taxes. Ronald Reagan, in both of his campaigns, aggressively talked about taxes, the first time about tax cuts, the second time about tax reform,” Gleckman said. “George W. Bush talked about tax reform and got it.”

1986 Comparisons

The last large-scale tax overhaul in 1986 under Reagan is often touted by Republicans as a model to follow for another revamp of the tax code. House Republicans released a tax blueprint earlier this year that could serve as a starting point in negotiations. However, more plans are needed for tax overhaul discussions to be most productive, said Peter Sepp, president of the National Taxpayers Union.

“There is not the kind of legislative competition that we saw in the 1980s,” Sepp said. “That has to be the next step to tax reform.”

There is some conceptual agreement in Congress, especially about changes to the international side of the tax code, Gerson said. He said the amount of time and effort lawmakers have put into working on plans makes him optimistic.

However, the election has been nasty, and it isn’t clear how willing lawmakers in either chamber will be to work with whichever candidate is elected.

“Tax reform is hard to do. You have to have the absolute enthusiastic support of the president,” Gleckman said. “Congress cannot do this on its own.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura Davison in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Meg Shreve at

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