TO WATCH the Congress this past week trying to fashion a tax cut that will appeal to average Americans, still satisfy social and religious conservatives and at the same time please the wealthiest constituencies is like watching a bunch of roosters trying to lay an egg.
The problem with all these various tax-cut packages they're bickering over comes when you do the arithmetic. Crunch them through a cheap calculator and apply them to individual or typical taxpayers and huge tax cuts that leap from a newspaper headline have a way of shrinking to a monthly tax savings equal to the price of a six-pack and a boiled potato.
Invariably it turns out that for a family of 12 working 4.5 jobs and paying on two second mortgages, an $800 billion, 10-year tax cut means their tax liability will be shaved by $1.52 a month. Or a typical lion tamer paying alimony to four former wives will save 84 cents. An unmarried transvestite with huge costume deductions will end up paying $5 more. And a struggling bigamist hiding three wives from one another and barely managing to feed and house them all will get no relief at all.
For the fat cats
Then just as invariably someone will point out that a typical senior HMO executive making $145,000, say one in charge of denying benefits and shortening hospital stays, will save $10,000 a year.
Bill Gates will save more than the total tax liability of 1,000 blue-collar families. And an average two-yacht family making in excess of $500,000 a year will save 18 times the average annual dues of an American country club.
Is it any wonder that polls show Americans are indifferent, not to say hostile, to this foolishness in which the tax cuts waved at them so enticingly turn out to be chicken feed in a working family's budget? This past week's CNN/USA Today poll showed only 33 percent of Americans want to use the budget surplus to cut taxes while 61 percent mentioned increased spending on education, Medicare, defense or other programs.
The GOP's plea
I've listened to the arguments of members of Congress seeking desperately to justify large tax cuts for the rich. They boil down to a plaintive whine that goes something like "of course the rich would benefit more from our tax plan, but don't you see, that's because they pay more taxes."
How true, how true. And how equally true that the rich can afford them, especially since capital-gains taxes and tax rates in the high brackets have been so vastly reduced in the past 20 years.
With all their knavish plots, it's interesting that the congressional tax-cutters never considered the one tax reform that would have appealed instantly to most Americans and been intelligible to everybody.
This would have been a new, simplified tax code in which most returns could be filed on a post card. Unfortunately, the tax-simplification cause has been kidnapped by those who support a flat tax. They want everybody to pay taxes at the same rate.
In doing so, they would also rid the tax code of any concept of fairness and ability to pay, of any notion that the most economically fortunate of Americans owe a higher percentage of their income to their nation. They give tax simplification a bad name.
Robert Reno is a Newsday columnist.