Last week, President Bush finally named the members of a tax reform commission that he promised to appoint four months ago. But he has given the panel almost no time to do its work and expects a final report no later than July 31. It's hard to see what it can hope to accomplish in such a short time.
In his Sept. 2 statement, Bush said he wanted the commission to report "as early as possible in 2005." Yet only one member, economist James Poterba of M.I.T., is really known as an expert on tax reform, which means that the commission members are going to need considerable time just getting up to speed on the issues before they can even start serious deliberation.
Apparently, the White House went out of its way to find "experts" who have never supported any of the many tax reform plans -- flat tax, national retail sales tax, etc. -- that have been around for years. At least, they haven't done so publicly. It makes one wonder just how expert they can be when they seemingly haven't thought enough about tax reform to formulate an opinion before now. If it is because they just couldn't make up their minds, the commission's deliberations could be very long indeed.
I don't mean to disparage the tax commission -- officially, the President's Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform. I have seen and worked with many such commissions in the past, and I know that they can be very time-consuming and sometimes unpleasant. Two of the members live in California, and others live in New York, Massachusetts and elsewhere -- and have day jobs, as well.
Consequently, it will take some effort just to get all the members of the commission in the same room together. Yet, according to the executive order, it is expected to hold public hearings throughout the country including, but not limited to, representatives of "large and small for-profit and non-profit, State, local, and tribal governments, and from other individuals and entities as appropriate."
Having been chief of staff of a congressional committee, I know from experience that field hearings are expensive and difficult to organize but seldom yield any useful insights. On an issue like tax reform, virtually every important expert is already in Washington. The idea that some farmer or businessman or housewife from the hinterlands is going to have some idea previously unknown to those who study taxes for a living is just a pipe-dream.
It is hard for me to see how the tax commission is supposed to gear-up, arrange meetings, hold hearings and write a half-competent report in the time it has been given. In my opinion, one year is the absolute minimum amount of time that should have been allocated.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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