WASHINGTON -- A story making the rounds on Capitol Hill shows the depth of the skepticism about the chances for enactment of a second tax bill this year.
During closed-door deliberations on President Clinton's budget and tax plan earlier this month, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., urged fellow Democrats not to offer amendments to the plan. He was trying to move the package quickly through his committee and present Clinton with a political victory.
Rostenkowski promised committee members he would schedule a meeting at a later date to draft a second bill that would include their tax amendments.
At this point, one of the members reportedly blurted out, "We've heard that one before." Rostenkowski, the story goes. fired back that there would indeed be an attempt at a second tax bill.
Apocryphal or not, the story does contain a kernel of truth. If a Ways and Means member was expressing skepticism about a second tax bill, it's probably because the lawmaker was remembering what happened three years ago.
In fact, it wouldn't hurt to take a look back at 1990, in case, as Yogi Berra would say, 1993 turns out to be a case of deja vu all over again.
In 1990, Democrats in Congress were fighting for what they called tax fairness, as a counterpoint to President Bush's battle cry of "no new taxes." When the Ways and Means panel met that October to "mark up," or draft a tax bill, it produced a narrow package tailored to reduce the federal deficit. All it contained were revenue-raising-proposals, such as a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans.
During the 1990 drafting session, Rostenkowski prevailed on committee members not to load down the bill with their favorite revenue-losing amendments. He promised he would call another meeting to draft a second tax bill.
Sure enough, the next week the panel did meet. First, it approved a bill to make technical corrections in previous tax bills. The measure included a few minor changes needed to make the 1989 arbitrage rebate relief law more workable.
After disposing of that bill, the Ways and Means Committee went on to build a "Christmas tree" -- legislative parlance for a bill loaded down with members' favorite amendments. That measure included a number of bond items offered by Beryl Anthony, who at the time was an Arkansas congressman on the panel.
One of Anthony's proposals would have increased to $10 million the $5 million small-issuer exemption from the arbitrage-rebate requirement. Another would have repealed the requirement that no more than 5% of the proceeds of a bond issue be used for purposes "disproportionate and unrelated" to the purpose of the issue. After giving tentative approval to each tax amendment, however, the committee failed to take the final step. It did not vote on the total package. The bill was never formally sent to the House floor; it died in committee.
After that session in 1990, a House tax aide said the meeting was nothing but a fake. Rostenkowski never planned for the committee to take a final vote on the "Christmas tree," but staged the drafting session to allow members to air their provisions, the aide said.
"This was a cosmetic exercise." the aide said. "It was cathartic." From then on, many lobbyists derisively referred to the meeting as the "cathartic markup."
But back in 1990 some lobbyists did hold out hope that when the deficit reduction bill reached a House-Senate conference, Rostenkowski would try to persuade conferees to add some of the amendments from the cathartic markup. Rostenkowski managed to get the technical corrections bill added, but the other proposals never saw the light of day.
To what extent is 1990 a blueprint for 1993? Already there is talk among lobbyists and tax aides that a second drafting session is unlikely to produce a bill that will be enacted.
As they did in 1990, lobbyists are saying that the main value of a second tax bill would be to give Rostenkowski a number of proposals he could take with him to a House-Senate conference committee in hopes of adding them to the final version of Clinton's budget and tax package.
The addition of the technical corrections measure to the 1990 deficit reduction bill is a precedent for that.
But there is always the possibility that now, as then, Rostenkowski is going to convene a cathartic markup, and pass up the opportunity to construct a second tax bill with a chance of passage this year.