Our Chance to Pitch In for the Peanut Subsidy

April 14, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Fourscore years ago, when Americans first paid federal income taxes, only 357,598 had incomes high enough -- $3,000 -- to be taxed. They all had to sign their returns under oath in the presence of a government official, and the government audited every return.

In 1913, as soon as the 16th Amendment was ratified, empowering Congress to tax incomes, Congress imposed a tax of 1 percent on incomes between $3,000 and $20,000, with a 6 percent surcharge on higher incomes. But the next year the Balkans were heard from. There was an assassination in Sarajevo, war came to Europe, eventually America came to the war, and by 1919 there was a top rate of 77 percent and the threshold for taxation had been lowered to $1,000.

''War,'' said a great American radical, Randolph Bourne (1886-1918), ''is the health of the state.'' War also may have been the death of Bourne, who was a casualty of the influenza epidemic that raged in the war's final year. But he was right: Nothing matches war-making as an expander of government's control of society's resources and individual lives.

War can reconcile individuals to taxation.

This was an Irving Berlin lyric during the Second World War:

''You see those bombers in the sky?

''Rockefeller helped to build them, so did I.''

But no one nowadays sings of the democratic joy of all participating together in paying for, say, Amtrak or the peanut program. Hence the charm in this tax season of the ''A to Z Spending Cuts Plan'' proposed by Reps. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., and Bill Zeliff, R-N.H.

They propose setting aside 56 hours this year during which any House member could propose reducing outlays for any program, including entitlements. There would be a roll-call vote -- no anonymity of voice votes -- on each proposal.

The idea was endorsed by 234 of the 435 members in a letter to Speaker Foley last August, and 221 members -- where did the other 13 go? -- have co-sponsored the measure to make ''A to Z'' happen. House leaders will throw up every possible procedural impediment to prevent this happening, because the spending system depends on obscurity, secrecy and hypocrisy. Back home, members preach parsimony. In Washington they practice mutual logrolling.

If the impediments fail, we shall see who has the courage to cut, or the courage to defend, say, peanut subsidies. Of course, if cuts are made, they will run smack into the fourth branch of government -- Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Still, ''A to Z'' would be a step toward establishing the responsibility of individual legislators for what the legislature does. That would serve the cause of resistance to taxation.

Such resistance is rising faster than taxation is, for two reasons. Dissatisfaction with government's performance is rising rapidly. And there is a growing belief that government is, strictly speaking, irresponsible -- that sheer inertia accounts for the momentum of spending, and that the connection between a national mandate and the decisions by the national legislature is attenuated to the point of disappearance.

Taxation is a moral, not just a material, preoccupation because money is time: Taxes are a levy on the time we invest in being productive. Will the levy increase? The Clinton administration says federal spending as a percentage of gross domestic product will hover around 22.4 percent -- historically high, thanks to the Bush administration. However, the Clinton projections rest on three rickety assumptions.

They are that interest rates will remain where they were before they recently began to rise; that between now and 1999 there

will be no recession to trigger increased government spending in a shrinking economy; that defense spending will decline faster than the world will permit. Hence the administration is, as Peter Brimelow writes in Forbes, ''like a family that assumes -- on rather thin grounds -- that the breadwinner is going to get a big raise and the landlord is going to cut the rent.''

Regarding defense spending, it is instructive that this year's mid-April tax time coincides with the U.S. intervention as an active military participant in a civil war in the Balkans, probably on the losing side. U.S. aircraft are bombing Serbian forces because the secretary general of the United Nations, who seems to have acquired custody of NATO, had decided to do whatever is necessary to relieve another city in a nation not one American taxpayer in 10,000 could locate on an unmarked map.

Eighty years after the Balkans and the income tax first began complicating Americans' lives, war is the health of the United Nations, with interesting consequences for American sovereignty, and American taxpayers.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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