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Ask Americans about their most pressing concerns for the nation, and tax reform probably won't make that list - unless, of course, you are Dave Camp and Max Baucus. They are the chairmen of the congressional tax-writing committees. They're on a bipartisan mission to simplify the tax code. As NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith reports, they're out talking to people about it. She recently checked in on their progress.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Just call them Max and Dave. When they're out on the road selling tax reform, the chairmen don't wear ties and skip much of the formality of Washington, like last names, even. Senator Baucus is a Democrat from Montana, and Representative Camp is a Michigan Republican. And on a recent Monday morning, they found themselves in Debbie Schaeffer's appliance store in New Jersey, looking over some high-end ovens.
SENATOR MAX BAUCUS: Simple oven, steam convection.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: That's it.
BAUCUS: There it is.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Right there. This is what she wants.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You can wrap it up.
BAUCUS: Wrap it up.
DEBBIE SCHAEFFER: That's it.
KEITH: Schaeffer sat down with the chairmen at a faux kitchen island near the front of the store to talk taxes.
SCHAEFFER: Well, I think right now, it's just so extremely complicated.
KEITH: Welcome to the tax reform road show, the public part of Max and Dave's bipartisan push for a fairer, flatter, simpler tax code. Their leading question to the business owners and taxpayers they visited: Wouldn't it be better if the tax code were simpler? The answer is always yes, but...
BAUCUS: The way that many of those were deleted?
KEITH: This is Baucus asking Debbie Schaeffer about simplifying the tax code by getting rid of a bunch of deductions. It would mean lower tax rates, he says, maybe even a top rate as low as 25 percent.
BAUCUS: In exchange, you'd pay a lower rate. Is that an approach that makes sense?
SCHAEFFER: Oh, I think it's an approach that makes sense.
KEITH: And here comes the but.
SCHAEFFER: It's going to be very hard to wipe out all deductions, but if there is a compromise to get rid of some of the ones that are just, you know, that don't affect me, but...
KEITH: Therein lies the rub. People and corporations and interest groups all say, sure, get rid of tax breaks - just not mine. The next stop on the tour took Max and Dave to the dining room table of a retired CPA named Scott Stevens.
SCOTT STEVENS: OK. Am I allowed to speak? Because I never thought at my kitchen table, I'd have esteemed gentlemen like you guys. So, this is great.
KEITH: He shared his story using a website the chairmen set up to get regular people involved in the tax reform process. Thousands have written in, but Stevens' letter stood out. He complains that his daughter, who has her own photography business, pays a higher tax rate than hedge-fund managers.
REPRESENTATIVE DAVE CAMP: It's extremely complex, in all vested interests, etc. Is it so bad that it's worth the effort? What do you think?
STEVENS: I do. I think it's worth the effort. I mean, it's...
KEITH: Stevens also wished them luck. They're going to need it. They play down their partisan differences on the road, stressing the common goal of simplifying the code. But back on Capitol Hill, when party leaders talked about a tax reform, they talked about revenue, bringing the divisions into bright focus.
SENATOR HARRY REID: We're going to have to have significant revenue, period.
KEITH: That was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. His idea of tax reform is getting rid of deductions to bring more revenue into government coffers. And for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, that's a nonstarter.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: It's not about raising revenue for the government. So, yeah, I think we have a real stumbling block here, in trying to figure a way forward.
KEITH: Riding in an SUV together on their way to another stop on their tour, I asked Camp and Baucus about this. Do they talk about these differences? And doesn't it raise questions about their chances for success?
CAMP: We talk about it.
BAUCUS: We talk about it frequently. But we also know that that issue is going to get worked out. There's going to be compromise. In the meantime, let's work to get the code in much better shape.
KEITH: That last voice was Baucus. And, as often happens with these two, Camp chimed back in.
CAMP: Yeah, I don't think we'd be doing our job if we started off with saying, well, we don't agree on something, so let's just stop. And, clearly, I think if we can get the right policy, that's what we really need to look for. And so that's why we're doing these tours.
KEITH: And why, every couple of weeks, they gather for what they call a two-pitcher lunch at Kelly's Irish Times, a Capitol Hill pub. There's beer and soda and burgers, and a bipartisan mix of about a dozen senators and representatives. Congress passed a major overhaul of the tax system back in 1986. That plan was hatched over two pitchers of beer at Irish Times. Tamara Keith, NPR News.
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