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'Sweeteners' in tax cut bill called 'politics as usual'

By Ed Hornick, CNN
Gas stations like this one in Washington sell ethanol fuel. Ethanol tax credits are provided in the current tax bill.
Gas stations like this one in Washington sell ethanol fuel. Ethanol tax credits are provided in the current tax bill.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Congress is set to vote on a tax bill compromise
  • There are several add-ons, including ethanol tax credits extension, movie industry money
  • Analyst says the provisions are "politics as usual" and show the influence of special interests

Washington (CNN) -- There's more than meets the eye in the tax cut bill before Congress -- it's not just a push to let the Bush tax cuts remain in place.

The bill includes what the nonpartisan budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense calls "sweeteners" -- items that it considers pet projects from politicians and lobbyists.

"Added together, these narrow provisions result in tens of billions of dollars in special tax breaks without any real debate where Congress determines they are the best way to spur the economy or meet other goals," the group said on its website.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the tax bill will cost $893 billion, and Taxpayers for Common Sense recently unveiled its list of "hobo provisions trying to catch a ride" inside it. The group says the items aren't being mentioned besides the biggies, which include the Bush tax cuts and the extension of unemployment insurance.

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James Lange, an accountant and author of several published articles on taxes, politics and the economy, said the extras in the bill -- including an extension of ethanol tax credits -- show that it's "politics as usual."

"What might have started as something that was relatively simple, in terms of what the rates are going to be, did not deter the lobbyists from getting their own individual things," said Lange, who heads James Lange & Associates.

Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the nonpartisan American Enterprise Institute, added that the sweeteners show the "legislative process as usual."

"You need a few sweeteners to bring on a larger number of votes," he said. "And some of those sweeteners, which were added in the Senate, enabled them to get to 85 [votes] instead of 65. And that may make a difference when the House takes the bill up."

Ornstein said that the so-called sweeteners deal with things that "under no circumstances could be called justified in a world of tough choices or the best ways to create an economic stimulus."

He added: "It also tells us that whatever they say about earmarking, whatever they do about earmarking, they are going to find ways to earmark to protect their states and districts."

Items attached to the bill, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, include:

• A provision to increase the excise tax rebate for rum distilled in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Estimated cost: $235 million in 2011.

• Extending an economic development credit to American Samoa. Estimated cost: $15 million in 2011.

• Allowing special expensing rules for the film and television industry. Estimated cost: $162 million in 2011.

• Providing a cost recovery period for motor sports entertainment complexes. Estimated cost: $40 million in 2011.

Lange says his clients are concerned because the fate of other, bigger items -- like the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax, or AMT -- is frequently up in the air.

"I would tell you as a planner, it is miserable to have these types of constantly fluctuating laws, specifically in the estate tax area. That is very hard to plan for somebody."

But he said that many of the costly items in the bill, including the AMT, are needed and "make sense."

"Without it, it would have caused hundreds of thousands of people to fall into the alternative minimum tax," Lange added. "Parts of it I would agree with, parts of it I would not. I think a lot of people would feel that way."

Some of the more pricey items are getting a grilling from both Democrats and Republicans, especially the ethanol provision.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, is certainly not a fan. She is trying to offer an amendment to the bill that would cut the tax credit to 36 cents a gallon, according to reports. The bill would bump it up to 45 cents per gallon of ethanol, which is blended with gasoline.

Others, including Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Arizona, have called for ending the ethanol subsidies.

But Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley has long been a champion of the ethanol tax credit. He is, after all, a senator from Iowa, a state that grows corn and has a vested stake in ethanol production.

"Ethanol has proven its value as a homegrown, renewable fuel and, in light of the hundreds of billions of dollars shipped abroad as a result of foreign oil dependence, ethanol is a relative bargain," he said in a news release. "Letting these items lapse would be a textbook case of penny-wise, pound-foolish legislating."

Another item with a hefty price tag in the bill: the research and development tax credit, estimated to cost taxpayers nearly $6 billion.

The R&D tax credit would be extended for two years if the bill passes and would help companies expand research in the U.S. Some of the companies that Taxpayers for Common Sense points out are Microsoft, Harley-Davidson and United Technology Corp.

President Obama has been a longtime champion of the tax credit and has said that it's vital for helping businesses compete in the global economy. He said it would also help businesses create new jobs and stimulate the economy, and he and many other advocates have pushed to make these tax credits permanent.

In the end, if the tax bill passes, it will cost more than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars ($752 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office) and the economic stimulus bill ($787 billion over 10 years, the office estimates).

See a full cost list

For Taxpayers for Common Sense, it's just another example of the empty promises politicians make when they argue for fiscal responsibility.

"After Congress's rejection of the debt commission's proposal and continued failure to pass a single spending bill two and a half months into the new budget year, these end-of-year goodies makes one further doubt how serious Washington is about grappling with budget deficits for as far as the eye can see," it said.

CNN's Lisa DeJardins contributed to this report.