WASHINGTON. — Washington -- With great effort, I have managed to ignore the fact that John Sununu has been flying back and forth to New Hampshire whenever he feels like it in a government jet that costs taxpayers $3,945 an hour. The only thing that makes it worth comment is that he and his boss are such loud-mouthed complainers about government spending and taxes. Nobody likes a hypocrite.
There is only one Sununu, and he is White House chief of staff. There are hundreds of other complainers about federal frivolity and cruel taxes who are getting away with fiscal murder, over and over. It happens just about the time the rest of us are calculating how big a hit we will take from the Internal Revenue ''Service'' each spring.
In 1988, the last year for which such figures have been made public, 472 citizens who had income of more than $200,000 managed to pay no federal taxes at all. These cagey individuals and couples, whose income averaged $442,000 apiece that year, had particularly good luck with capital gains. Two of them actually admitted getting unemployment compensation.
Altogether, 557,848 filers of Form 1040 reported incomes above $200,000. Of those, 9,300 paid less than 5 percent taxes, and 17,082 others less than 10 percent. Any hard-working schoolteacher, truck driver or bartender is likely to have paid more.
Of those 472 who lived the high life with no taxes at all, more than twice as many claimed business losses as claimed business profits. Seven times as many took farm losses as took farm profits. Their deductions for interest averaged $135,000, for medical costs $186,000, for casualty losses $405,000, and for charity $87,000.
Another 3,396 high-income filers would have gotten away with no federal taxes if not for the minimum-tax provision meant to catch rich folks with heavy deductions. In 1988, that minimum level was 21 percent.
Despite what Mr. Sununu and Mr. Bush have insisted upon during every tax scrap with Congress, the IRS itself makes clear that the main beneficiaries of any capital-gains tax cut would be high-income citizens. Of those in the over-$200,000 bracket, 58 per cent reported capital gains -- averaging $384,476. Poor things, their salaries averaged a mere $291,646.
The next time the president or his chief of staff tries to sell the argument that a capital-gains tax cut would mainly benefit poor widows, those whose true interest lies with working Americans may find these figures handy.
If Mr. Sununu were capable of embarrassment, he would give up his self-appointed role as chief administration hatchet man against government waste and taxation. His credibility in that role is now nil, and he risks having congressmen laugh in his face whenever he brings up the subject from now on.
He has put the president in an uncomfortable spot. If any Democrat were caught so crassly abusing government privilege, Bush would be all over him like chickenpox. In this case, he has done what any chief executive does when the offender is one of his own, and the revelations have gone beyond denial. He called for a study.
Mr. Bush told his White House counsel to ''review'' the policy that lets Mr. Sununu order up a government jet to take him wherever and whenever he pleases. Naturally, since he chose the former New Hampshire governor and lets him run domestic policy, he asserts that Mr. Sununu still has his ''full confidence.'' He adds that the press should stop picking on Mr. Sununu now that he has made ''full disclosure'' of his flights.
Of course, Mr. Sununu didn't disclose anything until it was smoked out by reporters. And what he disclosed shows that in the past two years, he has used an Air Force plane 77 times, often as the only passenger. Only four of those trips were listed as ''personal.'' For them, he reimbursed the government at a minor fraction of the actual cost.
Twenty-seven trips were to New Hampshire, where Mr. Sununu keeps a home, likes to ski and has further political ambitions. None of them was listed as personal. Thus you and I paid the bill.
There have been much more expensive Washington scandals in recent years, including Iran-contra, savings & loan and the virtually ignored HUD rip-offs that ran to hundreds of millions of dollars. All of them cry out for further attention. But public exposure of the Hatchetman's habits is especially poetic justice.