Overhaul the Tax System

Overhaul the Tax System

By David Shribman - February 24, 2013

The last time the Senate met it actually came to a unanimous decision. It agreed that the traditional rendering of George Washington's Farewell Address, which for more than a hundred years has been read in the chamber on or around the birthday of the first president, would instead occur Monday, and that Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte would perform this commemorative act. That's a start.

When she gets around to reading that revered document, the New Hampshire lawmaker may think the 17th paragraph was written especially for the 113th Congress. In that passage, Washington talks about "obstructions to the execution of the Laws," the danger posed when factions hold "artificial and extraordinary force," and the peril involved when small groups seek "to make the public administration the mirror of ... ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction."

It makes you wish the Farewell Address were read more than once a year, or that Ayotte's 99 colleagues might actually break with form and listen carefully to what's being said in the Senate.

Now let's go from the first president to the 44th.

In the neighboring chamber less than two weeks ago, the latest incumbent in the Washington succession spoke to those who hold the seats once occupied by Robert Morris of Pennsylvania, Caleb Strong of Massachusetts and Rufus King of New York. In his State of the Union address, Barack Obama said the American people "expect us to put the nation's interests before party," adding, pointedly, "They ... expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can."

Much of what the president said went unheeded at best, opposed at worst. But he did speak of one matter where both parties could come to swift agreement -- and not a peep has been heard about it from either branch of government since. It is a comprehensive overhaul of our tax system, 100 years old this month.

Let's recognize that throughout our history there's been no issue more consistently contentious than taxes, except, of course, race. This is why lawmakers wheedle, maneuver and plot to get on the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, where the tax laws are written -- or, if you will, ruined.

The country was founded on a tax rebellion; the notion, still not fully redeemed, that all were created equal came later, in part to dress up the American Revolution and clothe it in Enlightenment raiment. Tax rebellions have been central to our history from Pennsylvania's Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 to California's Proposition 13 of 1978.

In our time, Republicans have waged consistent war against taxes, equating them, as their patriot forebears did, with tyranny, or arguing that they distort economic behavior and act as a brake on growth.

In his address in the House chamber earlier this month, the president portrayed a tax overhaul as a way to hit deficit-reduction targets, arguing that the country could "save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected."

That's almost certainly true, but it's also almost certainly a losing argument. Those who have tax loopholes and deductions are those best armed to preserve what President Washington would have called "the ill-concerted and incongruous" in our tax code.

It's the next paragraph in the president's address that has political merit. "The American people," the president said, "deserve a tax code that helps small businesses spend less time filling out complicated forms and more time expanding and hiring; a tax code that ensures billionaires with high-powered accountants can't pay a lower rate than their hard-working secretaries; a tax code that lowers incentives to move jobs overseas and lowers tax rates for businesses and manufacturers that create jobs right here in America."

In short: a less complicated, fairer system. Also -- and here we plunge a policy dagger into the heart of accountants coast to coast -- one that is comprehensible to the normal human being.

In his 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter described the U.S. tax code as a "disgrace to the human race," perhaps the only thing upon which he and his 1981 successor Ronald Reagan would agree.

Reagan, assisted by the Democrat who headed Ways and Means, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Chicago, was able to strip the code in 1986 of many barnacles and lower the top rate to 28 percent from 50 percent. (The top rate has since migrated up to 39.6 percent.)

Now the trumpet summons us again to tax overhaul. The president -- like Reagan, with Illinois roots, but a Democrat -- believes that "now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit."

He was speaking language his rivals understand, and embrace. And the beauty thing -- as George H.W. Bush would put it -- is that Republicans are in accord. "There's the possibility now of doing something very big," Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said in an interview. "It's going to take presidential leadership. He's got to bring his party to the table. Republicans desperately want to do tax reform."

So there we have it. Two willing parties. One extremely juicy target. A way to ensure justice (the Democratic imperative) and lower rates (the Republican preoccupation). Also a way to increase the economic activity subject to taxes (a Democratic priority) and a way to help small business (a Republican goal since the time Newt Gingrich was speaker) all at once.

And a way to do what almost nothing does in a culture where it takes minutes to boot up a computer and hours to figure out how to get On Demand on your television. It simplifies things.

What's not to like?

Well, the Republicans are going to want tax overhaul to be revenue neutral and the Democrats are going to want to use it as revenue enhancement -- and those differences are not nuances.

There's going to be a debate about the rate of corporate taxation, but if we are lucky that will include a parallel one about tax obligations by companies with substantial operations overseas.

There almost certainly will be a discussion about whether the tax system should be an implement of social policy, but we have been having that debate for almost 24 decades. We probably won't decide that one in the next 24 months.

The three most powerful and evocative words in the American political lexicon are John F. Kennedy's. They are: Let us begin. Let's. 

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (

Copyright 2013, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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