The IRS wants you! Tax Day 1996: Debate on income tax reform gathering momentum.

April 15, 1996

NO PARADES. No flags flying. No patriotic speeches. No Yankee Doodling. This is Tax Day, the day 118 million Americans are due to turn over $157 billion to the nice folks at the Internal Revenue Service. It is the moment in the year when citizen-involvement in government is at its peak.

Instead of welcoming this occasion, legions of citizens curse the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified on Feb. 25, 1913. The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Bill Archer, has declared war on the amendment's graduated income tax, saying it should be "torn out by its roots."

So much for the great reform movement at the outset of this century. Public faith in fairness and progressivity has been compromised. Tax forms have become a nightmare. Armies of lawyers, tax accountants and bureaucrats live by the system. Taxpayers inflamed by blame-government politicians grow ever more frustrated.

Such is the situation that led magazine millionaire Steve Forbes to seek the presidency by calling for a flat tax, one that supposedly could be filed on a postcard. That he fell flat does not mean the issue is dead. Chairman Archer plans hearings on income-tax alternatives, including his own pet proposal for a national sales tax.

The Republican Party wants to appropriate tax reform as something uniquely its own, which it is not. Jimmy Carter proclaimed the tax system "a disgrace to the human race." Sen. Bill Bradley led the mid-1980s drive to treat all income alike. Jerry Brown is a flat-taxer. Bill Clinton made a middle-class tax break part of his run for the White House. All are Democrats.

What loads Republican guns, however, is the GOP's ability to outbid the Democrats in tax-bashing, especially with a pro-government guy like Mr. Clinton in the Oval Office. What they forget, as do most Democrats, is that the Sixteenth Amendment bringing on the graduated income tax was proposed and ratified under a Republican president, William Howard Taft.

As elections approach, overall tax reform (if it ever comes) will have to wait. Perhaps some popular tax breaks that expired in 1994 will be restored. Perhaps the capital gains rate will be eased on long-held investment. But before going much further, the country really needs to think harder about a flat tax, a national sales tax, the elimination of deductions for mortgage interest and charitable contributions and whether dividends, interest and capital gains should be taxed like earned income. Such issues are loaded with pluses and minuses. One thing sure: there will always be taxes.

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