How the Lame Ducks Can Strike Back

The U.S. Capitol Building stands in this photo taken with a tilt-shift lens in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Oct. 3, 201
The U.S. Capitol Building stands in this photo taken with a tilt-shift lens in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Oct. 3, 2014. When Congress returns to Washington on Nov. 12, lawmakers' to-do list will include a longer-term government funding measure and legislation setting Defense Department policy. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The lame duck session gives ousted legislators a chance to do something they dare not have done before the election: propose legislation that actually benefits constituents even if it means upsetting contributors. Specifically, they could take a giant step towards closing the most egregious tax loopholes that benefit people who fund anonymous PACs.

The proposal would be quite straightforward. We ordinary taxpayers are completely in the dark about how much these PAC-driven loopholes cost the rest of us by transferring the tax burden onto us, so let's turn the lights on. Citizens United makes it impossible to turn the lights on by finding out who funds the legislators who support these loopholes... but we can learn which legislators have been bought and paid for.

To begin with, no one really knows the size of the net per-taxpayer subsidy because these loopholes, by definition, are obscure. Even so, just adding the fossil fuel tax breaks to the "carried interest" loopholes used on Wall Street reaches well into the three figures per taxpayer per year.

Calculating and announcing an actual loophole cost-per-taxpayer is still not a bright enough light to capture the attention of a typical voter, so let's go one step farther. How about The Tax Loophole Refund Act of 2014, which would close all these loopholes and return the resulting revenue to taxpayers in the form of actual checks? And to increase the impact even more, what if people willing to take a little haircut could secure an advance of four or five years' loophole refunds, in order to get a one-time check of $1000 or more?

Now it's a bright light. People will notice that they could be getting $1000, depending on which way their representatives vote.

There are two possible outcomes for this legislation in an up-or-down vote -- and it would have to be an up-or-down vote to keep the provisions from getting whittled away. The Loophole Refund Act passes, in which case we could each see a check around $1000 in our mailboxes. The other, more likely, alternative is failure, but the good news about failure is that a vote on this legislation answers a critical question: Who is working for taxpayers and who is working for SuperPACs?

In addition to answering this question, ending the most unfair distortions in the tax code, and stimulating the economy because most of us would spend this "loophole refund," the approach of making benefits tangible could turbocharge other legislative initiatives as well. For instance, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, what if instead of a "carbon tax" or "cap and trade" (neither of which mean anything to most people), there were a "Green Dividend," in which all the tax revenues raised to combat global warming were mailed out per capita?

As another example, effective pharmaceutical company lobbying means that the government is not allowed to negotiate drug prices. How much is that costing each of us, and can someone propose getting our money back?

Democracy works best when people are educated, as Thomas Jefferson noted. Sending out checks to educate people on revenue-related issues is a gimmick, of course -- but possibly a very effective one in helping people understand the costs and benefits of various giveaways and other initiatives.

And there has to be at least one defeated incumbent willing to do this, someone who is upset enough to strike back at the anonymous billionaires who financed their opponent.