WASHINGTON -- Many tax committee members heard surprisingly few complaints when they were back in their districts during the August recess about recent attempts in Congress to raise the federal gasoline tax by 5 cents a gallon, congressional aides said this week.
The apparent absence of an outcry over taxes may smooth the way, at least to a small degree, for the lawmakers to consider legislation this fall that would extend tax provisions that expire Dec. 31, the aides said. Those provisions include the tax exemptions for mortgage revenues bonds and small-issue industrial development bonds, as well as the low-income housing tax credit.
Even with that obstacle diminished, however, the aides said there is still little impetus to draft a tax bill this year. They added that they did not expect to see the House Ways and Means Committee start consideration of a tax measure until late October at the earliest and, possibly, not until November.
Before Congress adjourned for a five-week recess in early August, some congressional aides had been concerned that tax lawmakers would hear loud and vociferous complaints when they got back to their districts about the Ways and Means panel's narrow approval of a 5-cent increase in the federal gas tax in late July.
The tax increase already had been approved by the House Public Works and Transportation Committee as part of a $153.5 billion bill to finance highways and mass transit programs over the next five years. But after the contentious Ways and Means vote, House leaders postponed a floor vote on the bill, largely because of widespread unhappiness among members about the gas tax provision. The fate of the highway bill remains uncertain.
The reluctance by Ways and Means members to approve the gas tax increase threatened to spill over into other tax matters this fall if their constituents voiced enough discontent about taxes during the recess, aides said.
The panel would need to approve a tax increase if it wanted to pass legislation extending the expiring provisions, because they would lose money for the federal government. But with taxes having become an increasingly unpopular subject on Capitol Hill, a large number of complaints from constituents about the gas tax "could have been the straw that broke the camel's back," preventing any attempt to draft expiring provision legislation in the fall, said an aide to a tax committee member.
But the outcry expected by some aides did not seem to materialize.
The reaction "hasn't been as bad as I thought it would be," said a tax committee aide. "It was kind of a surprise."
One Democrat on the panel "has gotten a little bit of a response, but he hasn't reported back to me that he's gotten flooded," said a congressional aide.
"It's been relatively quiet," said an aide to another member of Ways and Means. "If you're asking whether we've been getting hundreds of letters, the answer is no."
Even with that roadblock apparently out of the way, however, there is still a great deal of uncertainty among congressional aides on the timing of a tax bill this fall. Drafting could not begin until mid-October at the earliest because the Ways and Means panel has a full schedule of hearings on various issues for the next month, aides said.
But it could even be November before a drafting session is scheduled, said one aide. Tax increases remain an obstacle to passing extensions of expiring provisions, the aide said, adding that it would not be surprising to see Congress wait and tackle the issue next year.
There is also the possibility that lawmakers would simply run out of time. Capitol Hill watchers have said they expect Congress to adjourn for the year around Thanksgiving, but lawmakers would have to remain in session until Christmas to finish a tax bill begun in late October or early November, tax aides said.
"If they're really going to go out at Thankgiving, there's not enough time to do a bill," said one aide.