All the promises coming from the Trump administration and the Republican leadership in Congress about plans to enact a massive rewrite of the federal tax code have been greeted with caution by much of the Washington establishment. That’s in part because a lot of the key elements for a tax reform bill to become law have been missing.
One of the missing pieces, however, is finally in place. Before leaving town at the end of last week, the Senate dispensed with a large number of executive branch nominations that have been waiting for approval, and one of the nominees who were confirmed is David Kautter, an experienced accountant and attorney who will serve as the Treasury Department’s Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy.
Kautter will be the administration’s point person on discussions about tax policy with House and Senate Republicans, who have shown strong interest in pivoting away from the failed effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and turning instead to tax reform. His presence is particularly important, because the administration does not currently have anyone serving at a high level who has significant tax policy experience.
That shortage of policy expertise was on painful display in April, when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Economic Adviser Gary Cohn called a press conference to announce the administration’s plans for tax reform. The announcement was accompanied by a single-page handout that was so vague that it offered little more than a restatement of some of President Trump’s stump speech vows.
Mnuchin and Cohn were unable to offer detailed responses to specific questions about the administration’s plan, and little was heard from the White House again until last month, when alongside top leaders from Congress, Mnuchin and Cohn released another set of guidelines for reform. This one was slightly more detailed, but still fell well short of a comprehensive rewrite of the tax code.
Experience in tax policy matters is something Kautter brings to the table in abundance.
As tax legislative counsel to former Sen. John C. Danforth, a member of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, Kautter was the primary drafter of what is now known as the Research and Experimentation Tax Credit (more commonly known as the Research and Development or R&D credit). That credit, which was made permanent in 2015, has been among the most popular business-friendly tax benefits on the books for approaching 40 years, and has been worth billions to U.S. corporations.
After leaving Capitol Hill, Kautter worked for accounting firm Ernst & Young, eventually becoming director of its national tax practice and its national human resource services practice. After leaving E&Y, he became managing director of American University’s Kogod Tax Center, executive in residence in the Department of Accounting and Taxation at the Kogod School of Business.
Since January of 2015, Kautter has been running the Washington tax practice of the accounting firm RSM (formerly McGladrey.)
Kautter will enter a tax debate that has already begun in earnest, even if most of the details are still being worked out. The Trump administration has promised lower taxes across the board, for both businesses and individuals, a simplified filing system, a scheme to entice companies holding profits overseas to repatriate them, and a transition away from the United States’ antiquated global taxation of U.S. businesses to a territorial system more in line with the rest of the developed world.
He appears to have arrived on the scene too late to play any role in the discussion of a border adjustable tax, an idea that had considerable support among Republican leaders, particularly in the House of Representatives, but that failed to find much traction with the Trump administration.
What’s clear is that members of Congress appear eager to get to work on tax policy. After nearly seven months of unified control of Washington, they have no significant legislative accomplishments to boast about, and a successful run at tax reform could allow them to deliver something positive for several of their constituencies at the same time.
Last week, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch made plain that the committee he chairs, Senate Finance, is focused on tax reform -- even in the face of calls from the president to return to health care.
“We’re not going back to health care. We’re in tax now. As far as I’m concerned, they shot their wad on health care and that’s the way it is. I’m sick of it,” he said.
Whether that means a willing partner for Kautter on Capitol Hill, or just a frustrated one, is still to be determined.