Volume 82, Number 2

May 2007

Sunset Provisions in the Tax Code: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptions for the Future

Manoj Viswanathan

In this Note, the author argues that sunset provisions associated with tax legislation are, in their current form, the product of political maneuvering designed to bypass budgetary constraints and are exploited as a means of enacting what is, in reality, permanent legislation. The use of sunsets in this manner has lead to considerable uncertainty regarding the future of their associated tax provisions. This uncertainty, in turn, has created opportunities for legislators to extract rents from lobbyists, generated inefficiencies for both taxpayers and the government, and increased overall tax code complexity. These problems can be minimized, however, if sunsets are used in a more principled manner. This Note argues that sunset clauses in tax legislation can be made more efficient by limiting both the occasions in which sunsets are employed as well as the procedures used to implement them. First, sunsets should only be used in conjunction with certain kinds of tax incentives: The incentives should be simple, of limited duration, and provide diffuse rather than concentrated benefits. Second, sunsets should only be implemented through a limited set of congressional budgetary procedures: They should only be included as part of the reconciliation process for enacting fiscal legislation if the underlying bill increases rather than decreases revenue, and if Congress enacts and adheres to a revenue-neutral, pay-as-you-go set of budgetary rules. These changes, both substantive and procedural, will increase overall efficiency in the use of sunset provisions in tax legislation.