Yin, Once the Nation’s Top Tax Official, Returns to Teach
When U.S. Representative Bill Thomas tapped George Yin to head Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation in 2003, Yin was already a veteran of Capitol Hill, having worked as tax counsel for the Senate Finance Committee 20 years earlier. But Yin could not have predicted that he would be in the middle of so many headline-grabbing issues. Even five months after stepping down, Yin still has trouble giving a concise explanation of what he did there. “The job was so multifaceted, so many different aspects of the job [that it’s difficult to summarize]. All I know is that every day, every week, every moment of my life was consumed by this job.”
Yin oversaw about 70 staff in six different locations—primarily lawyers, economists, and accountants—who work collaboratively with members of Congress and their staffs on every aspect of the tax legislative process, including developing tax proposals and analyzing their economic and legal effects, preparing background material for hearings, testifying at hearings and markups, drafting Committee and Conference Reports, and helping draft statutory language. The staff works most closely with the two tax-writing committees in Congress, the House Ways and Means and the Senate Finance Committees.
The nonpartisan JCT staff is the principal resource on all tax matters for the Congress, serving both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Maintaining the JCT’s nonpartisan integrity while working closely with key legislative players is the biggest challenge for any JCT chief, explained Yin. “If the JCT staff is to be as independent and nonpartisan as it should be, then there must necessarily be some distance between the chief and any given member of Congress. On the other hand, if the skills and knowledge of the JCT staff are to be put to best use in the legislative process, then there must be a certain proximity between the chief and key players involved in the process at points when important decisions are being made.” Achieving the right balance is difficult but important, Yin said.
Holding one of the most influential tax policy positions in the country, Yin was a voice of authority on the tax implications of Congressional bills. As taxes have gradually insinuated themselves into nearly every aspect of our society it has become increasingly unusual for Congress to take up an issue that does not involve taxes in some way.
The JCT staff provides the final say on a bill’s revenue consequences (whether the proposal will increase or decrease revenues in the future and by how much). This can be a highly contentious area with the fate of a bill rising or falling with the revenue estimate determined by the staff. In addition, the staff carries out investigations and prepares reports that can place the chief of staff in the middle of issues that fill the headlines. For example, shortly before Yin began his tenure, the staff investigated and reported on the tax and compensation issues relating to Enron.
The Congressional Fruitcake Episode
Yin was on the job only a few months before he became involved in a major partisan imbroglio that made the front page of the New York Times. At the time, Democrats were complaining publicly about being shut out of the legislative process by the Republican majority. During one of Yin’s first appearances before the Ways and Means Committee as chief of the JCT, they demanded that a 90-page amendment to a pension bill be read aloud (which fell to Yin). As Yin began dutifully reading the bill, the Republican chair attempted to press on and override the Democratic request for a reading. When 71-year-old Rep. Fortney “Pete” Stark (D-Calif.) protested, Rep. Scott McInnis, a 50-year-old Republican, muttered “Shut-up.” Stark responded angrily, “Oh you think you are big enough to make me, you little wimp? Come on. Come over here and make me. I dare you. You little fruitcake. You little fruitcake. I said you are a fruitcake.’’
Recriminations and mud-slinging from both parties followed and the “fruitcake” episode was in and out of the papers for almost a month. “I actually made the front page of the New York Times—I am ‘the clerk’ who started to read the bill. I was relieved I wasn’t mentioned by name. I must confess that I started to wonder what I had gotten myself involved in,” Yin recalled.
Yin reported to Congress on ways to help close the “tax gap,” the difference between the taxes owed under the law and the amount actually paid. Recent estimates show the tax gap to be in excess of $300 billion each year, equivalent to the yearly cost of the entire Medicare program. Yin and his staff developed over 70 specific options to reduce the tax gap.
After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Yin described for Congress how various tax breaks could help stimulate redevelopment of the area. He also worked on several high profile tax bills, including the 2003 Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act, the 2004 Working Families Tax Relief Act and the 2004 American Jobs Creation Act.
Yin often had the job of explaining complex tax laws to legislators, and he always relished the challenge of explaining complex things as clearly as possible. He recalled an observer, who was familiar with Yin’s experience as a former manager of a day-care center, remarking to him, “I think it must be your background working with 5- and 6-year-olds that enables you to speak so clearly to these members of Congress.”
A native New Yorker and lifelong Yankees fan, Yin drew on baseball to comment on the perennial question of whether the United States will ever make fundamental reforms to the tax system. “As I told a group in Boston recently, if the Red Sox can finally win the World Series, tax reform can certainly happen.”
After ending his tenure as chief of staff, rather than cash in on his JCT experience by becoming a lobbyist, Yin instead chose to return to the Law School. “I took the JCT job out of a sense of public service during an important and difficult time for our country. I also took it because I thought it would be a personally enriching and fulfilling experience. When I decided to leave, it seemed natural to get on with my life, which is as a law professor and not a lobbyist. UVA is also a fine school with good colleagues and students. Thus, I didn’t really consider staying in Washington and doing something other than teaching.”