The Legislative So-Called Process

September 12, 1993

Since 1988 some members of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) have been suggesting to Congress that it raise the 1040 check-off amount from $1 to $3 per taxpayer. This provision of the law allowed a tax return filer to instruct the Treasury to put a dollar in the presidential election campaign fund. Taxpayers who check off do not have to pay an extra dollar of taxes. The money that goes into the fund is, in effect, everybody's money.

This is a unique feature of the tax code. It is also unpopular. Last year only about one tax return in six included a check mark in the appropriate box. The 1993 returns haven't been broken down by percentage yet, but the FEC estimates there was a drop of nearly 10 percent from 1992's record low.

Such unpopularity kept Congress from acting on suggestions that it raise the figure from $1. Until now. This year Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell had the increase inserted into the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993. Republican senators tried to keep the figure at $1. They failed, on a party-line vote. That occurred during a session that began at 9 one morning and ran till 3:30 the next morning. There was almost no debate on the Republican effort to strip the check-off provision from the bill. One Republican senator made a brief speech in favor of an amendment that would have kept the check-off at $1; one Democratic senator made an even briefer speech in opposition to the amendment. No one else spoke on the matter on either side. Then only one Democrat voted for the amendment and only one Republican voted against it.

Without any discussion or, as usual, a vote, the House-Senate conference committee approved the item, and the full House and Senate approved the conference committee report. The House had had no such item in its original reconciliation bill. Most representatives still don't know they have approved it. The conference report takes up 255 pages of the Congressional Record; only a few lines are devoted to the check-off. There was some thought by Republicans that it could be excised by a parliamentary challenge to the effect that it is not a revenue bill, but nothing came of that.

So it goes with what columnist Mary McGrory once dubbed "the legislative so-called process."

One thing is for sure. Even fewer 1040 filers will check off next April 15. The FEC estimates that about 2 million fewer taxpayers will check off next year than this year.

Why? Because, it says, the new tax laws contained in the reconciliation bill will reduce the number of tax-payers who have to file 1040 forms.

There's something else. Disgust with politicians and the process when this story finally is widely known will turn off plenty of former taxpayers who checked off.

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