WASHINGTON -- In his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996, publisher Steve Forbes always evoked enthusiastic applause when he promised to abolish the tax code.
But shooting off your mouth on the campaign trail is one thing and simply abolishing the code with a single stroke is quite another -- although that is precisely what the Republicans who control the House of Representatives have pledged themselves to accomplish. They have passed, 219-209, a mind-boggling bill that would require Congress to write a new tax system by July 4, 2002, then scrap the current code at the end of the same year.
The measure is, of course, essentially meaningless. It has little chance of approval in the Senate, where members seem to take their responsibilities a little more seriously. And even if it were approved there, President Clinton plans to veto it.
So all the Republicans have really done is make a political gesture for use in the November election campaign. They can now bray about how they voted to abolish that rotten income tax code while the Democrats defended the tax system as usual.
It is hard to imagine anything more insulting to the American people than this initiative. Do these Republicans really believe the voters are so stupid they will mistake this bill for a serious legislative initiative?
The insult is made all the more egregious by the fact that the Republicans are nowhere near a consensus on the kind of system they would prefer to the code today. Mr. Forbes used to talk about a flat tax and a system so simple you could fill out your return on the back of a postcard and just mail it in. It sounded too good to be true because, of course, it was.
There are others among the House Republicans, most notably Majority Leader Dick Armey, who support a flat tax today, although they are far from agreement on how it would be worked out and what the final rate might have to be. The politically tricky part about such plans is that they would require abolishing such popular tax preferences as the home mortgage deduction.
Others in the House, most notably Chairman Bill Archer of the Ways and Means Committee, would eliminate the income tax entirely and substitute a national sales or consumption tax. But such a radical approach would entail some of the same political jTC risks as the flat tax.
At one level, the political appeal of the promise to scrap the tax code is obvious. Almost everyone agrees that the code is so long and complicated it can require some taxpayers to employ a battery of accountants and tax lawyers to comply. And everyone knowledgeable about the system also agrees that there are some glaring examples of unfairness in the relative treatment of different kinds of taxpayers.
The House legislation called for finding a system that is "fairer, less complicated and less burdensome on working Americans." No one would argue with that goal. But voting to kill the existing system before finding some consensus on a replacement is both cheap politics and bad government. How can businesses plan for the future if they have no idea what the tax laws are going to be four years from now? How can the average taxpayer decide when is the right time to buy a new home?
One answer might be that this bill is an empty gesture that should be ignored. On the other hand, what it does show is the depth of the dissatisfaction with the current code, the message being that some kind of replacement is at least a possibility.
The answer is not trying to solve the problem by fiat. Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, ranking Democrat on Ways and Means, put it this way during the debate: "Let's pass a law to terminate cancer. If you vote against it, you support cancer."
The bottom line is that the whole thing should not be taken seriously. It is simply another case of that Republican hard core in the House that is far more interested in making ideological and political points than in addressing serious problems.
And if such a gesture nourishes Americans' cynicism about the political system, so be it.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 6/24/98