Opinion: Columnists

More Washington Wink-Wink on tax credit transparency

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Photo - Sen. Max Baucus, D-Moint., is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee that rejected an amendment to make public the names of tax credit recipients and the amounts they receive. (AP Photo)
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Moint., is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee that rejected an amendment to make public the names of tax credit recipients and the amounts they receive. (AP Photo)
Mark Tapscott,Columnists,Campaign 2012

Members of the Senate Finance Committee are crowing this morning about their actions yesterday on tax credits for special interests - voting for them individually instead of their customary adoption en masse.

Ranking minority member Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT, called it "a major achievement." Committee chairman Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., didn't go quite that far, saying on that his panel was "walking," not taking baby steps.

Another word for this seamy legislative process would be spelled 'b-r-i-b-e.'

Either way, it's smoke-screening hokum. They're patting themselves on the back for doing what they should have been doing all along - legislating out in the open on the dirty business of tax credits so the rest of us can see which special interests they're serving.

Senators - and members of the House of Representatives, too - love tax credits because special interests of all kinds write checks for big campaign contributions in return. Another word for this seamy legislative process would be spelled "b-r-i-b-e."

The Washington Post's Lori Montgomery does a good job this morning of chronicling most of the votes yesterday that illustrate the emptiness of the senators' mini-orgy of self-congratulation.

Race track owners were protected, as were manufacturers of electric-powered motorcycles, rum makers in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and a StarKist Tuna factory on American Samoa.

To be fair, the senators did vote to end 20 of 75 specific tax credits they considered. That's hardly a major achievement, however, since the total value of all tax credits in the tax extenders bill currently under review comes to an estimated $40 billion annually, according to Montgomery. Nobody can calculate with assurance the total value of all credits currently on the books and only the IRS knows the identities of the beneficiaries.

More to the point is this: The senators had an opportunity yesterday to show genuine political courage and advance the public interest in a huge manner, but they blew it.

The opportunity was an amendment offered by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, to require making public the names of tax credit recipients and the value of their provisions via inclusion on the federal government's main spending database on the Internet.

That's the USASpending.gov database created by the Federal Financial Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 (FFATA). Coburn was the prime mover of FFATA, working most closely with a first-term Illinois Democrat named Barack Obama. Thus, the bill's informal referencing as "Coburn-Obama."

Coburn-Obama represented a major step forward for government accountability and transparency because it put most federal spending within a few mouse clicks of everybody with an Internet connection.

But, as good as it was, it didn't include data on tax credits. It's doubtful Congress would have approved FFATA and sent it to President George W. Bush for his signature in September 2006 had the tax credit data been covered.

Adoption of Coburn's amendment yesterday would have been a major step forward via FFATA. But all the usual excuses were brought forth, including fears of compromising commercial secrets, and the amendment was defeated on a mostly party-line vote. Democrat Tom Carper of Delaware, a FFATA co-sponsor, supported Coburn, several of his GOP colleagues opposed him.

Among the most revealing rationalizations for their lack of political courage is seen in Sen. Debbie Stabinow's comment that "big tax reform is where we need to look at all this stuff."

Translated, what Stabinow meant is this: It's so much easier to hide what we're doing for our contributors in a big reform bill than to just put it all on the table so the public can see for themselves.

Big reforms allow senators to claim to be doing something historic even as they keep doing what they've been doing all along. That's Washington Wink-Wink and it's why the ranks of Tea Party-backed insurgents keep growing.

Mark Tapscott is executive editor of The Washington Examiner.

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