Lawmakers' ignorance isn't bliss for Americans

October 19, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - Congress has just passed one of the most important pieces of legislation of the year, dealing with corporate taxes, and, as a concerned citizen, you may feel slightly uninformed for not knowing what's in it. But don't be too hard on yourself: Your representatives don't know either.

How could they? At 633 pages, the measure is longer and heavier than a Swedish film festival - and about as intelligible to the average American. Unless, that is, the average American has an advanced degree in accounting, allowing sense to be made of provisions relating to, say, "look-thru rules to apply to dividends from non-controlled 902 corporations."

Of course, if you have trouble deciphering this legislation, help is at hand. Attached to the measure is an explanation of everything it contains - boiled down to a clear, concise 600 pages.

Keith Ashdown, vice president of Taxpayers For Common Sense, which followed the bill closely and supports some of the main components, is asked if the average member of Congress had the slightest idea what he or she was enacting. "No way," he says. Although he assumes the chairmen of the two tax-writing committees perused everything in advance, most members "don't know what they're voting on."

Remember that radio quiz in 2000 when George W. Bush couldn't name the president of Pakistan? Members of Congress would fare just about as well if they had to take a test on the contents of this landfill.

It began as a response to a World Trade Organization ruling against a tax break for American exporters, but it soon came to resemble kudzu - if kudzu had access to amphetamines. Replacing that $5 billion program, in the odd math used on Capitol Hill, will end up costing the Treasury $137 billion.

It reminds me of some former neighbors of mine who initially decided to replace a bathtub and, thanks to an outwardly logical and apparently unstoppable thought process, ended up demolishing their house and building a new one. In all fairness, they did get a new bathtub out of the deal.

The final package contains a bewildering array of unrelated items. It suspends a tariff on imported ceiling fans. It extends a tax break to Alaskan Eskimos engaged in subsistence whaling. It provides assistance for a mall in Shreveport, La., that will house a Hooters. It cuts the excise tax on fishing tackle boxes.

Even the sponsors acknowledge that their creation is a bit ungainly. Its original purpose was to cut corporate taxes on domestic manufacturers from 35 percent to 32 percent. But one of the ways the supporters secured the votes for passage was to expand the definition of manufacturing beyond recognition. Producers of drinking water qualify, for example. So do architects. So do oil companies. So does Starbucks.

"I think you'll find that manufacturing grew a bit beyond what Webster said," confessed Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. One tax committee staffer gave a definition to The Wall Street Journal. A manufacturer, he explained, is any business with a Republican lobbyist.

Treasury Secretary John W. Snow groused about the bill, but President Bush is expected to sign it. John Kerry's press spokesman didn't return a phone call requesting information on his position.

Are the provisions in the bill a good idea? Beats me. Given some time and some information, I could probably come to some conclusion about them.

But the lawmakers who approved this bill didn't take time, and they didn't need information. And that is a bigger scandal than the gaudy array of special-interest favors that make up this legislation. As Mr. Ashdown puts it, "It will take days, if not months, to figure out everything that's in there."

We send people to Washington to deliberate on national policy for us, and even though we may not be able to keep track of everything they're doing, we expect them to be able to. But as our government has gotten bigger, more centralized and more complicated, it has taken on a life of its own. As a result, Congress routinely approves legislation that it essentially knows nothing about.

The old saying is that you should never watch sausage or laws being made. Anyone quoting that today, though, is inviting a libel suit from sausage makers. At least they know what's in their products.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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