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This is how the tax code unravels.
The Senate Finance Committee, in a rare show of bipartisanship, took less than two hours Tuesday to approve the tax extenders, a hodgepodge of more than 50 temporary tax breaks that expired at the end of 2014. The extenders are primarily a giveaway to business and should remain expired–an option that doesn’t require any congressional action–but on these corporate giveaways, the nation’s lawmakers agree.
This is bad enough — but it gets worse. Committee members presented a jumble of amendments that would broaden these tax breaks, and actually approved a handful of them. For example, one of the existing provisions gives a special tax break for film and television productions. Producers can immediately write off the costs associated with creating a film or TV show, instead of gradually writing off their investments over the life of the asset as required of most other businesses. But there are meaningless limits: production companies can only write off the first $15 million in costs per film or per television episode (which essentially means the entire cost of a single television episode could be fully tax deductible), and only the first 44 episodes of a TV series are eligible for the tax break. This, however, may reflect lawmakers’ awareness of the jumping the shark phenomenon rather than legislative restraint.
Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch decided that it’s unfair to give the producers of “House of Cards” a tax break without extending the same privilege to their counterparts on Broadway, and so the committee broadened the film and TV tax break to include “live theatrical productions.” This revision could have saved such gems as the big budget disappointment “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark,” and, if passed, would provide generous tax write offs for those who produce economically devastating Broadway duds in the future.
Discerning lawmakers decided a tax break for Broadway is one thing, but southern-grown blueberries went a step too far. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia) offered an amendment to expand the “bonus depreciation” tax break to include expenses related to blueberry production. Georgia, it turns out, is the largest blueberry-producing state in the nation. Isakson’s proposal thankfully fell on deaf ears.
The committee’s actions Tuesday reflect a disappointing lack of legislative interest in achieving real tax reform. The tax fairness victory achieved by allowing this motley array of tax breaks to expire at the end of 2014 was purely accidental. The committee should have simply allowed the extenders to remain dead and buried. At the very least, they could have spent more than two hours on these corporate giveaways and taken the time to ask hard questions about each and every one of them.
Instead, they simply brought them all back to life in the legislative equivalent of A&E’s The Walking Dead. Of course, the enthusiasm of the members of the tax-writing committee for the extenders has nothing to do with good tax policy. Rather the tax extenders are simply a periodic campaign fundraiser for senators and representatives at the expense of ordinary American taxpayers.