“A thumb goes up, a car goes by…” Tax extenders remain a top contender for “hitching a ride” on November’s must-pass government funding bill.
Wolters Kluwer recently sat down with Jennifer Acuña, Principal, Federal Legislative and Regulatory Services, KPMG LLP, in Washington, D.C. to discuss over 30 temporary tax provisions known as “tax extenders,” which have expired or will soon expire spanning from 2017 to 2019. Before joining KPMG, Acuña served as chief tax counsel for the Senate Finance Committee (SFC), and was previously tax counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee.
New Tax Extenders Climate on Capitol Hill
“There is an interesting dynamic going on with tax extenders on Capitol Hill. In the past, extenders were viewed as a priority item, and that has changed,” Acuña said.
Generally, tax extenders have been viewed on Capitol Hill as a consistently bipartisan annual or biannual year-end legislative initiative. However, the fate of tax extenders is more uncertain than it has been in the past – in part because it is not clear yet whether there will be an opportunity for any further tax legislation to become law this year, Acuña observed.
Funding Bill Likely Driver for Tax Package
Lawmakers are revving up negotiations as Congress races against this year’s dwindling legislative calendar to reach an agreement on fiscal year (FY) 2020 appropriations. Government funding is scheduled to expire on November 21.
Given the political climate on Capitol Hill and Congress’s limited time left on the legislative calendar, a stand-alone tax package is considered unlikely to make its way through both chambers successfully. That said, November’s “must-pass” government funding bill could be the legislative vehicle for dozens of expired or soon-to-be expired tax extenders, as well as for any other tax provisions that may crop up during lawmakers’ negotiations.
SFC Chair Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and ranking member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced their bipartisan Tax Extenders and Disaster Relief bill (Sen. 617) earlier this year. Subsequently, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., introduced his version of a similarly named tax extenders bill (HR 3301). However, Neal’s bill—which proposes undoing certain provisions related to estate taxes under 2017 tax reform as a “pay for”—was immediately deemed a nonstarter by Senate Republicans.
Notably, Acuña observed that House Democrats may be viewing their tax extenders bill as an opening offer, providing leverage for a larger tax policy negotiation. “In today’s climate it seems that some of the signaling that’s taking place is that House Democrats are trying to position tax extenders as a Republican priority to build up leverage for a larger tax policy negotiation,” Acuña said. “Once you have a tax title on a big bill, there is no limit as to which tax provisions could actually be included in the bill,” she added.
Larger Tax Package Could Emerge
In that vein, there has been talk among lawmakers that a larger, catch-all tax package could emerge from these negotiations. Any tax package that is unveiled in the coming weeks must have significant bipartisan support to make it to the president’s desk. That said, amidst the new climate surrounding tax extenders on Capitol Hill. several lawmakers have alluded that bipartisan negotiations could result in any number of tax provisions being added to the anticipated tax package, including technical corrections to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) ( P.L. 115-97).
Staking Ground on Extenders
“Right now, what is happening is that parties are staking their ground,” Acuña said. While Neal’s bill was largely seen on Capitol Hill as an opening bid to these negotiations, “no one opens with their best offer,” Acuña said. However, “there is common ground with respect to tax extenders,” she added.
Additionally, Acuña noted that these temporary tax provisions benefit a broad range of constituents. “They have been extended historically without fail for a reason. And it is because there has typically been general bipartisan support for extenders; there is a little bit of something for everyone” she said.
However, as for which tax extenders will be renewed this year, as well as retroactively or all together forgotten, Grassley recently indicated that all eligible provisions will likely make the cut. “I would expect that as of right now, if there is an extenders package there won’t be anything left out,” Grassley told reporters.
When asked if Grassley was likely referring to all expired or soon-to-be expired tax incentives spanning from 2017 to 2019, Acuña told Wolters Kluwer “that would seem to be the case.” While discussing the possibility of yet another temporary extension, Acuña noted that it is hard to make policy calls on a temporary tax extenders package.
“If you want a drama free negotiation on temporary extensions, it’s a clean date change. It is easier – you do not have a policy debate,” she said. “If there is an opportunity for a tax title to be attached to a larger bill this year, it is infinitely harder to include changes that some Members of Congress will not like than it is to just do what has been done in the past and kick the can down the road by temporarily extending everything.”
In looking ahead, deciding which temporary tax provisions get the axe is a policy call that is unlikely to be made this year and will not easily be done on a bipartisan basis, according to Acuña.
To Pay For or Not to Pay For
As for tax extenders’ cost, the issue of pay-fors has not generally been a longwinded discussion among lawmakers. “In the past, there have been very short-lived debates on whether to pay for them,” Acuña said, adding that extenders generally have not been paid for. “It is hard to find a way to raise the kind of money needed to pay for a tax extenders bill that would be politically palatable for both sides of the aisle.”
However, cost can be a leading issue when Congress creates these tax breaks on a temporary rather than permanent basis, Acuña explained. “In theory, everyone might agree that a tax incentive is excellent tax policy, but because of revenue constraints, Congress will not or cannot pay for it on a permanent basis—and that is usually where Congress lands in this temporary tax policy pickle.”
Additionally, Acuna highlighted that many of the individual tax cuts under the TCJA were enacted temporarily through 2025 due to budgetary reasons. “A lot of the TCJA provisions gave life to new expiring provisions,” Acuña noted. Likening the TCJA’s individual provisions to the long list of tax extenders currently awaiting possible renewal, Acuña noted that tax policy is not usually made temporary “because the members viewed the underlying tax policy as unsound but because of other constraints.”
The End for Tax Extenders?
Many Republican and Democratic lawmakers’ have called for an end to tax extenders, citing to the annual year-end dash to renew temporary tax provisions as bad tax policy overall. Indeed, five taskforces comprised of bipartisan SFC members recently reviewed these tax extenders and largely agreed that temporary tax policy in general is less than ideal. While many House lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, in this Congress and those before it, have agreed that enacting permanent tax invectives is better policy than doing so temporarily, actually getting there remains a challenge, even if just procedurally.