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Jewish World Review / June 22, 1998 / 29 Sivan, 5758

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Independence Day, 2002

SIGNS OF LIFE may have been detected on Mars and, strange as it may seem, even in the Republican Party.

The GOP hasn't had a new idea since circa 1994, when it overthrew the old Democratic lords temporal that had controlled Congress for some 40 years. The grand old party then proceeded to enact some grand new ideas into law, including a balanced budget.

Those resurgent Republicans of the 104th Congress even subjected members of Congress to the same web of rules and regulations that apply to all other Americans. It was an exhilarating time, but it passed.

Outfoxed by a president who plays the polls the way Heifetz did the fiddle, the Republicans retreated, then lapsed into a coma, just hoping to hold on. It was as if they'd lost their nerve.

But the grand new party may yet stir again. On Wednesday in the House of Representatives, Republicans put forward -- and passed -- the boldest idea about taxes since that little tea party in Boston: Abolish the Internal Revenue Code.

That's right: The whole ball of wax and hall of mirrors. And do it by the 2003. To take its place, a new -- and, one hopes, simpler -- tax code would have be approved by July 4, 2002. Except for the payroll taxes reserved for Social Security, the whole tax code would be up for discussion. At last.

The idea is inviting, and invigorating: Declare a new kind of American independence. And set a deadline for it. That way, enacting a new, simpler, clearer, fairer tax system wouldn't be just something to be done someday, if and when the politicians get around to it. The job would have to be done by a date certain.

Is this idea ground-breaking or just wacky? Bill Clinton calls this approach "an irresponsible scheme." As if the present tax code were a responsible scheme -- with all its confusions, injustices, obscurities and crushing burdens, especially on working families. Why not start clean? By July 4, 2002. If taxpayers have to meet deadlines, why can't politicians?

Yes, but monstrous as the current tax code is, what would the new one be like?

Well, there's Dick Armey's proposed flat tax of 17 percent across the board, which would exempt the first $33,000 of income for the typical family. It would beat the morass we have now if the aim is a truly progressive income tax. Instead of the fraud now on the books.

Congressman Armey's opposite number in the House, Dick Gephardt, would tax annual income up to $40,200 at 10 percent, then graduate the tax brackets up to 34 percent. Under the Gephardt plan, almost all deductions but home mortgages would go.

Either of these simple proposals would beat the complicated mess the country has now. Imagine filing your income tax on the back of a postcard -- and a fairer income tax at that.

There are other reforms waiting in the wings -- if Congress would act on them, instead of just talk about them. But to act, Congress may need a deadline -- just like the rest of us. Good intentions won't get it. Congress needs to do more than think about reforming the tax code some day, when and if it can find the time.

Congress needs to be told: Make the time. And that's just what this bill would do. Instead of another nonbinding resolution, Congress could use some resolution. Or at least a deadline. And the sooner it acts, the sooner the sooner the economy can be unbound from the bureaucracy and paperwork the tax code imposes on it.

Think of the new, productive world that could be ushered in: Business decisions might be made on the basis of business, not tax policy. And imagine what might be accomplished if all the brainpower represented by those tax lawyers and CPAs were used for productive purposes.

Unimaginable, say those who can't picture a world without an internal revenue code that is (a) interminable, (b) indecipherable and (c) sure to change next year.

Yet the worse the tax code gets, the less the chances of repealing the thing outright -- because so many interests have so much riding on so many of the special favors hidden in the fine print. With the Senate lying in wait and a veto certain, this bill is doomed, but it might catch the attention of the American people in an election year. It might make tax reform a real issue, instead of just another political platitude. Especially if it becomes a campaign issue in the fall elections.

It'll never come to pass, the experts say of tax reform. They say a lot of things. They said welfare reform was impossible, too -- as impossible as a balanced budget. But as the groundswell for a new, simpler, fairer tax code gains ground, even politicians might find the idea attractive, especially in an election year.

To quote one Republican congressman: ``President Clinton hasn't sounded this upset since he opposed welfare reform, a seven-year balanced budget and reform of the IRS'' -- all ideas that Bill Clinton not only came around to, but now claims credit for. Which is just fine. If politicians cared less about who got credit for genuine reforms, there might be more of them in government.

As the vote in the House showed, the Republicans have dared to dream the most impossible dream since a balanced budget. Naturally, they'll be denounced by those who can no longer imagine a new birth of freedom, a new beginning, a bright new morning in America. The current morass, they feel, is about the best we can do. To those folks, it's always night in America.


6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Inc.