WHAT'S the most obscure provision being considered by the House-Senate budget conferees?
It's a tough call, since conference committee members are negotiating over literally hundreds of changes in the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1993. Some of the biggest provisions have received wide publicity, but many others have been slipped into the bill without any scrutiny from most members of Congress, to say nothing of the public at large.
Two leading contenders for the coveted "most obscure provision" award are sections 13003 and 13005 of the House version of the budget legislation. Both are small changes in the Social Security system. Very small.
Section 13003 allows state and federal courts to access Social Security numbers to weed out duplicate jury-selection notices. In many states, jurors are selected for duty based on drivers licenses and voter registration rolls - and both numbers are often identical to the Social Security number. In order to avoid calling the same people twice, court administrators asked the House Ways and Means Committee to include this provision in its contribution to the reconciliation act.
The House complied, but the Senate didn't follow suit because changes in Social Security do not affect the reconciliation bill's ostensible goal, which is $500 billion in deficit reduction over five years. Section 13003 apparently will not save the federal government much, if any, money.
Under the Senate's "Byrd Rule," an extraneous provision can be stricken from a bill unless 60 senators vote to keep it in. But a congressional staff member says Senate conferees may allow section 13003 to stay in the bill "if they feel like it."
Section 13005 is in the same boat. This provision is winningly titled, "Limited Exemption for Canadian Ministers from Certain Self-Employment Tax Liability." Huh? Who are these Canadian Cabinet members and why are they getting a tax break?
It's not easy to find an answer to those questions. At the Social Security Administration, spokesman Phil Gambino says, "I'm not familiar with the provision. The administration has never heard of it."
Not even House staff members who oversee such changes in the tax code seem to know much about section 13005. It was included in a tax bill vetoed last year by President Bush, but staff members can't say where the clause originated.
House staffers do offer a few facts in response to repeated inquiries. It turns out that section 13005 is misnamed. It doesn't have to do with Canadian ministers at all. Rather, it concerns American clergymen who work temporarily Up North.
For many years, these ministers were double-taxed: They had to pay US Social Security taxes because the Internal Revenue Code defines ordained ministers as self-employed and therefore subject to US self-employment tax. But they also had to pay social security taxes in Canada because the Canadian tax code defines ministers as employees of their churches and deducts their salaries accordingly.
A 1984 tax treaty between the United States and Canada eliminated this double-taxation by exempting American ministers working north of the border from US Social Security taxes. Section 13005 makes the tax treaty retroactive to 1978. Ministers who didn't pay extra US taxes in those years don't have to pay penalties.
What kind of impact will this have on the budget deficit? Congressional analysts who examined section 13005 rate its financial impact as "negligible," which, in Capitol-speak, means it will cost the government less than $500,000.
Nobody has come forward to suggest that either section 13003 or section 13005 is a bad idea. But such tinkering with the tax code does come at a price: It increases the cost of preparing tax returns. It also makes complex bills such as the reconciliation act almost incomprehensible - even to many members of Congress and their assistants.