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Editorial: Lawmakers and Loopholes

Last month, a survey by Indiana University’s Center on Congress found that a mere 9 percent of those in a recent poll approved of Congress’ job performance — or, as one report put it, “perilously close to the margin of error for none at all.” If you wonder why Congress has nearly hit bottom in its approval rating, take a look at what it did with the deal on the so-called fiscal cliff.

Both the House and Senate, but especially the House, dealt so incompetently with the fiscal crisis they were responsible for creating in the first place that they no doubt sank even lower, if that’s possible, in the public’s esteem. It’s bad enough that members waited until the last second to cobble together a deal that hardly satisfied anyone.

But they then proceeded to make matters worse by larding up the legislation with gifts to a variety of special interests.

What? You thought the one thing members of Congress, Republican and Democrat alike, agreed on is that they were fed up with loopholes and giveaways and pork? Guess again.

Sugar producers, movie makers, NASCAR operators, railroads and Goldman Sachs all benefited generously from a variety of tax credit extensions tucked into the legislation that amount to more than $200 billion. That includes a sweetener of hundreds of millions for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands for rum produced in the islands and imported to the mainland.

It includes the extension of a tax subsidy for film and TV companies, as long as 75 percent of production occurs in the United States, allowing them to deduct millions in costs. This provision was estimated to cost $320 million between 2011 and 2012.

Some provisions have a worthwhile aim, like the one that provides tax credits to railroads for maintaining their tracks to make them safe — worth about $160 million per year. We’re all for safe railroad tracks. But why should private businesses be compensated for the costs of doing business?

Support for tax loopholes is one of the few activities that can truly be labeled bipartisan in a Congress that is otherwise bitterly divided along party lines.

That’s because lawmakers from both sides of the aisle benefit politically from their sponsorship.

Take, for example, the subsidy to NASCAR. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., both sponsored versions of the so-called Motorsports Fairness and Permanency Act, which found its way into the fiscal-cliff deal.

The bills give favorable tax treatment to racetrack owners, projected to amount to $43 million over two years. This allows most builders and operators of race tracks to get a special tax break. Like most of the other provisions, this had little chance of passing as independent legislation, but it cleared Congress after it was included in the fiscal cliff bill.

Rep. Buchanan, the only Florida legislator on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, has received more than $530,000 over his career from the automotive industry, according to The Sunlight Foundation. He also owns a car dealership in Sarasota. The automotive industry has also contributed $430,000 to Stabenow.

Instead of extending and widening loopholes, members of Congress interested in improving the image of the legislative branch should concentrate on eliminating loopholes and streamlining the tax code. Otherwise, if Congress can’t do better — a lot better — that 9 percent approval rating may look pretty good a few months from now when it gets closer to absolute zero.

The Miami Herald