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Want to understand tax reform? Read this report.

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Ann Hermes/Staff

(Read caption) Posters hang in the halls of the US Internal Revenue Service building in Washington.

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If you are a tax geek, or even a normal person who wants to keep up with the ongoing debate over restructuring the tax code, download a copy of the congressional Joint Tax Committee’s Tax Reform Working Group Report.

It is 568 pages long, doesn’t have much of a plot, has no character development (unless you are good at reading between the lines) and sort of peters out at the end. Yet, it is likely to prove an invaluable resource as tax reform moves ahead.

Think of it as the ballpark program you pick up before a baseball game.  You can watch the game without it, but it is much more fun if you can keep score and know a little something about who plays for the visiting team.

The report is divided into three parts. The first is a brief summary of the revenue code. Each provision of the law gets explained in a couple of sentences or, sometimes, a few paragraphs. You’ll learn about everything from adoption assistance to retirement plans, and from the tax treatment of U.S. territories to depreciation of manufacturing equipment. 

And, btw, it answers the musical question: How long does it take to describe the federal tax law in this shorthand? Answer: 444 single-spaced pages.  

The second section summarizes a dozen different tax reform plans—ranging from President George W. Bush’s 2005 reform commission report to President Obama’s fiscal commission plan (aka Bowles-Simpson), and including proposals from the liberal Economic Policy Institute to the conservative Heritage Foundation (Full disclosure: the Tax Policy Center provided technical analysis for many of these plans).

The third section attempts to summarize public comments to the House Ways & Means Committee’s tax reform working groups. This section describes, in JCT’s best “just the facts” tone, the wide range of ideas presented to the work groups. They can be summarized like this: Keep the government’s filthy hands off my tax break.

The plot of the JCT tome, then, reads something like this: The tax code is mind-numbingly complicated and economically inefficient. Just about every reform plan from presidents Bush to Obama and across the spectrum of think-tanks would trim or even eliminate many of the tax code’s $1 trillion+ in preferences. Yet, pretty much every lobbyist who commented to the Ways & Means working groups echoed the long-ago doggerel of former Senate Finance Committee chairman Russell Long—“Don’t tax me, don’t tax thee, tax the fella behind the tree.”

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And there we stand.

Nonetheless, download the JCT’s report. You’ll find yourself looking at it often.

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