STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Even as Congress tries to finish this year's big tax deal, some officials are looking to next year. Last week on this program, President Obama spoke of changing the whole tax code. You might lose many tax deductions, but you would get a lower tax rate.
President BARACK OBAMA: What I believe is that we've got to start that conversation next year. I think we can get some broad bipartisan agreement that it needs to be done. But it's going to require a lot of hard work to actually make it happen.
INSKEEP: Those words sound encouraging to the man who will be in charge of writing tax law next year. Republican Dave Camp has been urging a tax overhaul himself.
Representative DAVE CAMP (Republican, Michigan): I think we have to reform our complex burdensome tax code. It's 10 times the size of the Bible with none of the good news.
INSKEEP: Congress Camp represents a wide stretch of Central Michigan. He's about to take charge of the House tax-writing committee, one of the most powerful of all committees, since tax law touches everything. You become chairman by working on that committee for years, building up seniority.
Rep. CAMP: I was elected to the committee in '93.
INSKEEP: 1993, 17 years. You're going into your 18th year here.
Rep. CAMP: I'm a newbie compared to my predecessor.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: I'm sure he wasted no time in telling you that at some point.
His predecessor was Charles Rangel, the senior Democrat who lost the job amid an ethics investigation, even as Democrats were on their way to losing the House.
Charles Rangel was an outsized personality, as he once told us himself.
Representative CHARLES RANGEL (Democrat, New York): You know, modesty is not really my best trait.
INSKEEP: And in a 2006 interview, Charles Rangel reminded us that some kind of tax reform has appeal across party lines. The New York City Democrat saw big benefits in altering the code.
Rep. RANGEL: The Internal Revenue Service can look at it and say there's $350 billion in there if you just try to look at it and streamline it a little better.
INSKEEP: The old Democratic chairman saw closing tax loopholes as a way to raise federal revenue. The new Republican chairman spoke more quietly when we met at his office this week, and he made it plain that he sees tax reform differently than many Democrats do. Dave Camp says he wants a simpler and more efficient tax code, not more tax money.
Representative DAVE CAMP (Republican, Michigan): I would very much like to begin working on this issue, but we have to be clear that we may mean different things even though we use the same terms. I also think reducing rates and reducing the number of deductions and exemptions would be a smart thing to do. But I just think we have to be very clear and direct about what we can and cannot do. For example, I think there is a level of funding that the government should have and how much of the people's money should the government take. And that is an area that we'll have to have further discussion.
INSKEEP: You're saying you don't want to raise a bunch more government revenue in this process of rewriting the tax code.
Rep. CAMP: No, I think the problem is spending, and I think when you talk to Americans across the country, I think they see the issue as spending. And so I think we have to begin by reducing spending from these inflated levels we're at, we need to begin to pursue fundamental tax reform so that we can get our economy moving again, try to make gains on employment, and also remain competitive.
INSKEEP: Although when that statement is made - if you go to some centrist expert on the budget, like Joe Minarik of the Committee on Economic Development, who was on the program not too long ago, what he was saying was you can't solve this by tax increases but you also can't solve it by spending cuts. You have a huge deficit. You're going to have to do a little bit of everything to be realistic.
Rep. CAMP: Well, the concern is, if you go to higher revenue now you will never get the spending reductions that you need to bring government back in line. And you'll have this continuing cycle of an ever-growing government becoming more of our economy, and that, I think, is what we are going to try to avoid.
INSKEEP: And maybe we're hitting on a difference that you may have with President Obama, even if you're both talking about tax reform. He said last week - I'm just quoting here - people like myself who've been incredibly blessed and who have a lot more in income and wealth can afford to pay more. Is that a true statement?
Rep. CAMP: Well, look, I'm encouraged by the things the president has been saying in general about tax reform. I think to begin the year pointing out where I might differ with the president isn't productive. I think that we have to build some credibility with the American people and I'm concerned about the average middle-class family that is really bearing the cost and the expense of much of what government spending has meant.
INSKEEP: Republican Dave Camp argues that a simplified tax code - lower rates, fewer tax breaks - can streamline the economy. But he acknowledges it will not be easy to agree on whose tax breaks go away.
Rep. CAMP: They're all in there because somebody really wanted them, so it's not going to be easy to change them.
INSKEEP: Changing who gets a tax break is just one of the goals of Dave Camp, the incoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
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