Code Breakers

The GOP has forsaken Reagan's tax message.


More than a decade after Ronald Reagan helicoptered off into the sunset, relinquishing the White House and control of a political revolution that transformed the world, conservatives and Republicans are still tripping over themselves to claim the mantle of the Gipper. GOP aspirants for every office in the land, from dog-catcher to president of the United States, invoke Reagan and claim to be the rightful heirs to his legacy.

The impulse is understandable. More than anyone else—more even than Barry Goldwater or Bill Buckley—Reagan gave shape to what is considered modern American conservatism, broadly defined as opposition to international communism and a belief in a limited government that pretty much leaves people alone. If the Republican Party is the party of anything, it is the party of Reagan.

But for all the reverential invocations of the 41st president, there isn't much fidelity to the core principles he championed, especially when it comes to taxes. It is telling that Reagan is far more warmly remembered for burying the Soviet Union than for his libertarian impulses on taxes. Years before he gained the White House, Reagan articulated his core belief on the subject in his 1964 "A Time for Choosing" speech: "We cannot have [true tax] reform while our tax policy is engineered by people who view the tax as a means of achieving changes in our social structure."

It's no wonder, then, that the conservative movement seems intellectually and politically moribund so soon after rising to electoral power in the mid-1990s. Even as conservatives wrap themselves in the mantle of Reagan, they cannot fully embrace his rejection of tax policy as a means of social engineering, perhaps because it would mean renouncing control too soon after finally grabbing it. But the result is an intellectual and political jumble that underscores the point that conservatives, like the liberals they define themselves against, are more interested in wielding power than in giving it back to individuals.

Take the tax bill the Republican-controlled Congress sent this summer to a skeptical President Clinton, who killed it with relish. Wielding his veto pen, Clinton said, "the bill is too big, too bloated, places too great a burden on America's economy…[and] would force drastic cuts in education, health care, and other vital areas." The 10 percent across-the-board reduction in personal income rates and the attempt to end the "marriage penalty" garnered most of the attention. But the GOP was equally proud of the dozens, if not hundreds, of targeted tax cuts and credits in the bill.

To gain support for the bill, the House Republican Conference, chaired by Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, published a document touting its wondrous elements. Among them were tax breaks for prepaid tuition programs; for farmers; for the oil and gas industry; for the forest and timber industry; for steel companies; for employers who hire workers living and working in what are known as "renewal communities"; for building or refurbishing commercial buildings in certain "distressed communities"; for real estate; for individuals who care for elderly family members in their own homes; for medical scholarships; and for school construction. Another provision was aimed at "enhancing [salary] fairness for women." Still others extended expiring tax credits for research, welfare-to-work plans, and oil-and-gas-well investment. Provision after provision encouraged certain activities (some meritorious, some suspect) or flat-out rewarded others.

This orgy of targeted tax cuts and credits epitomizes post-Reagan Republican special-interest politics. The habit of pandering to every favored group or constituency with a tax break has the added effect of undoing the great strides the Reagan administration made toward tax simplification.

The watershed 1986 tax reform rid the tax code of dozens upon dozens of special-interest loopholes. The aim—largely successful—was to chop the Byzantine code down to size, offering the average American citizen a simpler, fairer system.

"The 1986 tax reform cut the book in half," says Tom McCluskey, a senior policy analyst for the National Taxpayers Union, a D.C.-based organization that lobbies for lower taxes. Recent Republican efforts have undone that work, notes McCluskey, who further argues that GOP proposals demonstrate "the hypocrisy and stupidity of complicating the tax code." He points out that the 1997 Taxpayer Relief Act added over 200,000 words to the tax code, "not to mention hundreds of thousands more to the tax regulations that implement the new law."

Having just completed a study of the 105th Congress' mania for targeted tax cuts, McCluskey knows all the grisly details. He found that roughly one in every eight bills introduced would have affected the tax code for a specified portion of the tax paying public. Bills were introduced to give breaks to limo drivers, metal workers, restaurant employees, small-time farmers, pilots who fly to sparsely populated areas, whaling captains, unemployed radio DJs, people who employ golf caddies, casino owners, folks who live in a presidentially declared disaster area, and U.S. Olympic Committee members. These are just a handful of the hundreds of examples culled from meticulous research.

Not all of these provisions were enacted, of course, and not all were proposed by Republicans (though each of the examples above was). But to list them shows the willingness on Capitol Hill to ignore the notion that the Internal Revenue Code —like the rest of our laws—should be applied evenly. Equality before the law may be a revered principle, but it doesn't seem to extend to the tax code.

If current tax policies promoted by con-servatives were limited merely to doling out booty to favored constituents, that would be bad enough. Instead, many right-wing public policy groups are teaming up with Republican members of Congress to push a tax agenda that, by attempting to use the power of the state to mold society as they would like it, strikes at the very heart of modern conservatism's supposed belief in the individual's right to define and pursue happiness for himself.

The impetus has been the marriage penalty, which patently discriminates against married couples. It perversely takes a bigger tax bite out of the combined income of married couples when their income exceeds $42,350 than it would if they filed separately. This quirk of the tax code can be quite costly for a couple, and hence provides an economic disincentive to marry. Nation columnist Eric Alterman, for instance, has half-jokingly written that one reason he and his live-in girlfriend won't marry is because of the tax consequences.

A logical solution to the marriage penalty might be to allow individuals to file as such whether they are married or not. This would no longer punish marriage. But neither would it celebrate it in the tax code, which is what conservative groups such as the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America would like to see. Self-styled pro-family conservative groups are proposing dividing a married couple's income down the middle and letting each file taxes at the half rate, regardless of whether only one spouse works.

For conservatives, who feel that the feds have slighted marriage for years, the slide from value-neutral policies to ones which promote certain behavior is easy. To counter a liberal elite they say mocks the traditional family as anachronistic, patriarchal, and stultifying, conservatives offer explicitly pro-family initiatives, favoring things such as marriage, having children, and adopting. Indeed, for conservatives, tax policy is increasingly an obvious means to such ends. It allows them to implement social policy without explicitly spending money or explicitly mandating anything, an all-of-the-credit-but-none-of-the-blame scenario a politician ought to love.

But the downside is obvious. Getting married and having and adopting children are good things, as are, in the case of the charitable gift deduction beloved by conservatives, philanthropic donations. But should it be the job of the tax code to reward virtue? Or should it be to raise revenue for the operations of government, no more and no less? Asking people who don't marry or who choose not to have children to subsidize the activities of those who do is no less unfair than asking married couples to subsidize the activities of singles.

Worse still, when you start giving tax breaks for things like education or adoptions, you make it easier to give tax breaks for failed radio DJs and whaling captains. The tax code is now larger than it was before Ronald Reagan "cut the book in half" almost 15 years ago. The positive aspect to President Clinton's veto of the recent tax bill is that thousands more words won't be added to the Internal Revenue Code and its regulations.

Of course, the left has always been quick to employ the tax code to control human behavior and to punish activities it abhors. Hence the luxury tax on cars and boats a decade ago or, more recently, the push to jack cigarette taxes up to prohibitive heights. And for decades the right and the Republican Party have defined themselves in contrast to the noxious idea that the government should compel, or even nudge, citizens to do this rather than that. But if these few years of Republican rule in Congress are any guide, then the conservative movement is finding that it is very comfortable with nudging and compulsion after all.

Republicans often lament the fact that the party likely will never have another Ronald Reagan. He was and is the GOP's ideal: popular, personable, charismatic, well-loved. But the tears they shed over Reagan have blinded them to the fact that they are forsaking his legacy rather than building on it

In terms of tax policy, Reagan's legacy has nothing to do with personality. It is about a set of principles based on the simple idea that government shouldn't be in the business of encouraging or discouraging behavior. Rather, government should ensure a level playing field on which people can live out their lives as they desire. Today's conservatives and today's GOP fail to acknowledge that these principles were a large part of why Reagan was a popular and successful leader.