H.R. 1 Ain’t What It Used to Be

A mighty tradition is undercut by inaction on a tax overhaul.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 29: House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) presides over a hearing about the implimentation of the Affordable Care Act in the Longworth House Office Building October 29, 2013 in Washington, DC. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner is the first Obama Administration to testify before Congress since the troubled launch the federal exchange website. 'I want to assure you that Healthcare.gov can be fixed, and we are working around the clock to give you the experience that you deserve,' she said.
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
Jan. 30, 2014, 1:05 p.m.

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?

Click Graph­ic to View Lar­ger”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.”

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