'Fairness' in the House


Washington. -- Like God, Dan Rostenkowski looked upon his work and found it good.

Mr. Rostenkowski, chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said, "We need fairness in the tax code. Until now, there has been an imbalance in the code. . . ." Until now.

The committee's bill brought the tax code to the brink of perfection.

Until now, Democrats say, what has been needed to make the world safe for the persecuted middle class was, it seems, this bill that cuts, temporarily, taxes by a dollar a day for families in the middle class. That class is defined to include almost everyone. (Two years from now, during an election year, this cut will be allowed to lapse. That, at any rate, is the theory.)

Mr. Rostenkowski's bill also raises the top income tax rate from 31 percent to 35 percent for individuals making more than $85,000 and couples earning more than $145,000, and puts a 10-percent surcharge on incomes greater than $1 million.

But the bill eliminates the "luxury" tax on yachts, private airplanes, jewelry and furs. It indexes for inflation the tax on capital gains and cuts the capital-gains tax for certain investments. Furthermore, initially it would have cut by one percentage point the corporate tax rate.

Some House Democrats -- the Bolshevik remnant -- staged a mini-revolt, forcing Mr. Rostenkowski to drop the cut in the corporate tax rate. So now, presumably, the bill delivers even more of the "balance" that American taxation has lacked "until now."

For most of the "until now" during which the tax code was imbalanced, the Congress, which wrote the code, was controlled by Democrats. So it is not surprising that, in spite of their rhetorical ferocity, Democrats prove by their new bill that they have no really fundamental objections to the tax code.

Democrats make much of "fairness" as the moral star by which they sail. And they have considered Paul Tsongas retrograde because he does not talk much about "fairness." So it was a revealing moment when Mr. Rostenkowski's committee cleared its throat and uttered such a small peep of a bill.

Mr. Rostenkowski was elected to the Congress in 1958, before half the Americans now living were living. Before that, he was a foot soldier for the Democratic Party in Chicago, as was his father before him. There is only a faint Rostenkowski family memory of the private sector, so long have the elders of the House of Rostenkowski toiled at politics.

Mr. Rostenkowski represents what Paul Tsongas thinks is wrong with Washington. Mr. Tsongas' rather pastel wrath is aroused by politicians who have not had, as he has, a sojourn in the private sector. Mr. Tsongas says that if he were president, he would veto Representative Rostenkowski's bill.

Mr. Tsongas positioned himself in the crowded Democratic field by contrasting his supposed "realism" with the unrealism of everyone else, including his own congressional party. But if Mr. Rostenkowski's bill is anything to go by -- and there is nothing better -- the Democrats' ideological fires have been banked. For Democrats, trying to sharpen the "fairness" issue with Mr. Rostenkowski's mild and incoherent bill will be like stropping a razor on a slab of butter.

Mr. Tsongas is right that the bill is not serious either as economic stimulus or distributive justice. It merely scratches the legislative itch to have a tax bill every year. If enacted, it would do more harm than good. And by merely proposing it, Democrats harm themselves. They show how little they really have in mind when talking about the unfairness of the tax code "until now."

Suppose that during the 1980 presidential campaign, when the top individual tax rate was 50 percent, conservatives had been told that in 1992 Democrats would be proposing a top rate of just 35 percent. Conservatives would have been content. Furthermore, in 1988 conservatives would not have dared hope that in 1992 the liberal party would collaborate in siphoning off, for private consumption, even more of the federal government's dwindling revenue stream.

Perhaps, when push comes to shove, the Democrats' "congressional party" is not really all that far from Mr. Tsongas' supposed rightwingery. But, then, Mr. Tsongas is not as far right as it has so far suited his political needs to appear.

Mr. Tsongas says "we have counseling outside" for anyone who thinks a government-run health-care system would be a success, and he questions whether the words "government" and "efficiency" ever belong in the same sentence. But Mr. Tsongas also says government should be busy directing investment in private industries.

If "efficient government" is an oxymoron, why will government be a prescient director of investment? Perhaps prescience is just something government has lacked "until now."

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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