At the start of every Congress, House leaders have a tradition: H.R. 1, the very first of the thousands of bills that will be introduced, is set aside for a top legislative priority.
It is prime legislative real estate, reserved for big bills like the 9/11 Commission reforms, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement Act. Last year, Speaker John Boehner announced with much fanfare that he was using it for an overhaul of the nation's unwieldy tax code.
But almost 14 months later, tax reform hasn't gone anywhere and H.R. 1 remains an empty, unwritten shell of a bill. And with elections coming, there is a growing acceptance that H.R. 1 will not see action before the end of the session, at least not as promised.
"It's unusual, and it's an embarrassment," said Rep. Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat who has served since 1970.
The House Ways and Means Committee, and its Chairman Dave Camp, have done a great deal of work on tax reform, as has Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus. But Boehner's early enthusiasm, and indications from Camp that his panel would write, mark up, and pass major tax-reform legislation, have still not translated into an actual bill.
At a policy retreat Thursday for House Republicans on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Camp remained noncommital about whether a tax-reform package may come to the floor this year. Camp said he and other Republicans did talk during a closed-door "give and take" session about whether tax reform should be part of their 2014 legislative agenda. But he emphsized that no details were discussed.
"This was not a markup," he said, adding, "Certainly, with my committee members, we've gone into great detail. But this was about whether this issue should be one of the issues on the Republican agenda.
So, will his committee release a bill this year?
"I feel good about the way the retreat is going. So, I guess I will answer that question once the retreat is completed," Camp said.
But other Ways and Means Committee Republicans see dim prospects for any progress on a bill. Baucus is leaving the Senate for a position as U.S. ambassador to China. And Camp must step aside as Chairman next year, thanks to term limits, with many saying Budget Chairman Paul Ryan will succeed him.
"Everybody wants tax reform in the 30,000-foot view, OK?" said Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Florida Republican. "But now, the devil is in the details."
Buchanan and others say Camp's personal commitment to tax reform is well known—"there's no question about it," Buchanan said. But he added that "for one reason or another—including events in Iran, Syria, the fiscal fights, and government shutdown—nothing got out."
Now, releasing a tax overhaul plan with midterm elections coming this fall could generate fierce criticism from groups who believe they will be unfairly or wrongly hit by the proposed changes. With no chance of their plan being backed by Democrats in the House and Senate, many Republicans also do not want to draw any election-year focus away from their attacks on the Affordable Care Act.
House Democrats, for their part, say the problem is that Republicans pursued a partisan approach. "Hopefully House Republicans will use this delay to reconsider their approach and choose instead to work with House Democrats in writing any bipartisan tax-reform legislation," Rep. Sander Levin, the top Democrat on ways and Means, said in a statement.
And so the fate of H.R. 1 remains uncertain.
In previous sessions, H.R. 1 has been passed quickly. The No Child Left Behind Act, which was sponsored by Boehner himself, was passed by the House two months after it was introduced in 2001. H.R. 1 has also occasionally sat fallow, as it did under former Speaker Dennis Hastert in 2005.
Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman, said, "Camp and his committee have been working on it, and we'll unveil H.R. 1 when they're ready to proceed."
For his part, Camp shrugs off the notion that, in this Congress, it is unusual to have the highest legislative priority still unwritten more than a year into the session. As he put it, "In this place, nothing is unusual when it comes to the legislative process."
This article appears in the January 31, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.