The Senate

Congress Will Keep Senators' Tax Reform Wishes Secret—for 50 Years


Ranking member U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) questions current and former IRS employees while they testify before the Senate Finance Committee as committee Chairman Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) listens on May 21 in Washington

Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Ranking member U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) questions current and former IRS employees while they testify before the Senate Finance Committee as committee Chairman Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) listens on May 21 in Washington

Today The Hill reports that Senators Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who head the Senate Finance Committee and are working on a complete rewrite of the U.S. tax code, have assured their colleagues that any of their requests to preserve a loophole will be kept secret by the National Archives for 50 years. The details of the story, all true, read as if they were dreamed up by a 10-year-old after watching Thunderball: “Each submission will also be given its own ID number and be kept on password-protected servers, with printed versions kept in locked safes,” The Hill writes. Until 2064.

It isn’t clear who holds the key to the safes, or whether, as in a nuclear silo, there are two key-holders to prevent actions of conscience. Or whether the server will be protected with a password that must contain at least one number and one capital letter. Or whether that password will be written down, and if so, if that paper will be troweled into the repairs underway on the Washington Monument.

An aide explained to The Hill that Baucus and Hatch’s promise of 50 years of secrecy is “standard operating procedure for sensitive materials including investigation materials.” Tax negotiations, then—Congress’s basic constitutional responsibility—are to be held to the same standard of secrecy as the investigation of the Warren Commission.

Secrecy is a feature of our democracy. Sausage is gross, and backroom deals are necessary. But these secrets, the scraps of paper on which Senators write their wishes, vouchsafed in a hope chest at the National Archives, are so precious that they can’t even be trusted to a back room. Senators are scared. Some tax loopholes are just indefensible to voters. There is no way to pretend that they help our kids, or jobs. They just go to people and companies that donate money. That’s what this secrecy is for. The only possible reason for it to exist is to prevent senators from having to defend their choices to the public.

So here’s what we know about Baucus and Hatch’s “blank slate” process, which wipes the tax code clean, forcing senators to justify every loophole they ask to have written back in. We know that some of the loopholes just aren’t defensible, so toxic to voters that not only can we not know them, we may not ever know them. I will probably not live to 2064; the genes aren’t as good on my father’s side. I would, however, like to be able to decide how to vote in 2014. Senators have to please both constituents and donors. I get it. Money is speech. But any senator with a tax plea so secret it has to be physically locked away is definitely, absolutely not requesting it for the voters.

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Greeley is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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