President Clinton trying to protect the tax-code status quo

March 06, 1998

An excerpt from a recent Orange County Register editorial:

RECKLESSNESS, apparently, is in the eye of the beholder. President Clinton, for instance, professed Monday to see recklessness in a GOP congressional proposal to sunset the current federal tax code as of the final day of 2001 -- so as to force work to begin soon on a replacement.

Mr. Clinton denounced the idea without qualification, charging that the plan could disrupt the economy by creating a crippling uncertainty about future tax policies.

Armey's view

Others, however, might see greater irresponsibility in not taking dramatic action, now, to unsettle the status quo. America's is probably the planet's most complex revenue code -- a fact that has to be a drag on economic performance, even in the present heady days of prosperity.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey points out that the task of merely doing tax paperwork is a huge diversion of Americans' time and treasure from what could be more productive, economy-enhancing pursuits.

There is, indeed, a real recklessness in viewing this monstrosity of a system with complacency. Unfortunately, Mr. Clinton gives the impression of taking just such an approach.

His warnings about dangers in the tax-code sunset proposal might carry more credibility if he coupled them with an alternative proposal of his own for major tax simplification. But no such plan has been submitted by the administration, and the president mentioned nothing along these lines in his Monday speech.

Nor does his track record inspire confidence that he feels the pain of average taxpayers who are burdened by the system's complexities and often arbitrary enforcement mechanisms.

The administration set itself in opposition last year to bipartisan legislation designed to curb Internal Revenue Service abuses; only when momentum for the measure became unstoppable after Senate hearings that exposed some real-life stories of tax-collector bullying did the administration change its position on the legislation, which the president signed.

Tough talk, little action

To be sure, congressional Republicans are not beyond criticism on the issue of tax reform. They've talked a bold game since gaining control of the House and the Senate in 1994, with promises of serious review of new tax arrangements, such as a flat tax or a consumption tax. But the talk hasn't been matched by legislative action.

The promise in setting a date certain for the sunset of the current code is that it would have to prod lawmakers into the hard work of constructing something new -- one would hope, zTC something vastly simpler and less confiscatory. In fact, without a drop-dead date by which action must be taken, the likelihood that Congress would tackle such a task, with all its thorny controversies, is considerably less certain. Dr. Samuel Johnson famously said that a hangman's noose greatly concentrates the mind; in the same way, "Terminating the tax code is a forcing event," as Sen. Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican, put it Monday in response to the president's criticisms: "It would force the Congress and the White House to act, to replace the tax code."

If Mr. Clinton really wants fundamental tax reform, he should stop trying to protect the status quo from an appointment with the hangman.

Pub Date: 3/06/98

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