April 16, 2001
Tax Day- A National Nightmare
The one issue that generates more complaints to my office than any other is the income tax. Everyone has an opinion about taxes. For most people, their income tax return represents their most meaningful interaction with the federal government. Every April, Americans confess to the IRS their actions of the past year in excruciating detail. It's an annual ritual guaranteed to elicit strong feelings of disgust. Thanks to the deception of withholding taxes, April is the only time each year when most people realize how much money they really send the federal government.
What do Americans have to say about the income tax? First and foremost, they think federal tax laws are far too complex. They are tired of the incomprehensible rules, schedules, and forms which take hours to complete. They believe income taxes should be much simpler and fairer. They know that deductions are created for purely political reasons, without regard to common sense or clarity. They resent the arbitrary power the IRS has over their lives, especially when it is so difficult to calculate one's tax liability. Of course they also think taxes are too high, that government wastes taxpayer dollars with excessive and unwise spending. Some favor a flat tax, while others support a national sales tax. Some simply want deductions simplified. In short, Americans want reform. They want a new system of revenue collection, one that is simple and provides accountability. They want to know where the dollars are going.
Yet tax reform was not a key issue in the 2000 elections. Why no push for a massive overhaul of the tax system? Why trim the edges of the tax code, when so many Americans want the whole system thrown out? Given the tremendous amount of popular support for real reform, why is Congress not clamoring for radical changes?
The short answer, painful as it may be, is that Congress and the American people do not share the same goals. The real enemy of tax reform is the spending culture in Washington. Let me repeat: we will never have tax reform in this country until Congress changes its spending habits. The reform rhetoric, regardless of which party it comes from, never changes the reality that federal spending grows every year. Congress spent $1.7 trillion in the last Clinton budget; the new budget proposes to spend $2 trillion. The same unconstitutional agencies are funded, the same unwise programs are perpetuated, but at higher levels than last year. The previous budget serves merely as a baseline; the only question in any given year is how much spending will increase. Once created, no spending program is ever eliminated. The cycle goes on and on, with different administrations and different people in Congress.
It is useless to discuss tax reform without spending reform. Who wants a 40% flat tax? Who wants a national sales tax if it adds 50% to the retail price of everything we buy? In other words, why change the tax structure if spending stays the same? Once we accept that Congress needs $2 trillion from us, the only question is how it will be collected. The current answer is the labyrinthine tax code, which pits taxpayers against each other in a political scramble to make sure the other guy pays. The truth is that Congress does not need $2 trillion, and it is obscene that such a sum is even considered. When the federal government is held to its proper constitutionally limited functions, tax reform will take care of itself.
Other oppressive tax regimes have met their demise in the past, and I fear our government may be as arrogant and wasteful as any in history. Perhaps America is ready to reclaim the proud tax-fighting heritage of our Founding Fathers. I suggest the 2002 ballot box as the first battlefield. Those who support higher taxes and spending deserve to be the first political casualties.