Major tax reform is brought forward as a desirable goal in every Congress, but it's so difficult it has been accomplished only twice, in 1954 and 1986.
Now a select group of lawmakers is quietly working to try again — with the goal of having a complete bill to present to both houses by August. Whether that bill succeeds depends on President Barack Obama's ability to strike a deal with top Republicans.
But at the subterranean levels where Congress can get real work done — the subcommittees and informal gatherings of political opposites — things are beginning to stir.
Getting to actual, doable legislation in a Congress as polarized as this one is uphill work, but several developments augur well:
First, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, his party's ranking member, are, in the words of The Washington Post, "in complete agreement" on the need to produce a tax-reform bill in late summer "when Congress will again need a face-saving bill to justify raising the legal limit on the $16.8 trillion debt ceiling."
If there is one bipartisan agreement in Congress, it is that the lawmakers don't want to go through the embarrassment of another debt-ceiling battle. The last one spawned an ill-conceived offspring: the $85 billion budget sequester. Its negative effects, in the form of curtailed public services, are beginning to register with the general public.
Second, Baucus seems able to work closely with his House Republican counterpart, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan. The two co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week in which they disclosed they had been quietly working the last two years on a path to make the 5,600-page, 4 million-word tax code simpler, fairer and more conducive to economic growth.
Third, while the two men promised to write the reform in "an open and transparent fashion," it's likely to get written in private — as most difficult legislation does. And that's a good thing.
A tax bill drafted completely in pubic is a bill that likely will never be passed. The drafting will attract swarms of lobbyists who, unlike their 1986 counterparts, need only step outside the committee room to set in motion pre-packaged protests with a flick of their cellphones. A bill that attempts to please everyone — an inevitable consequence of allowing everyone in the room — in the end pleases no one,
The consensus of many in Congress was summed up by this headline in the watchdog newspapers The Hill: "Lawmakers: Secrecy will be needed for tax reform." It means that in a tradition as old as Congress, the most difficult and delicate compromises will have to be worked out behind closed doors.