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Abolish the IRS?

By Fred Hiatt

Sunday, January 11, 1998; Page C09

With President Clinton having appropriated so many Republican issues – the balanced budget, caring about families and so on – you might think the Republicans would be in a bind as this election year begins. But Rep. Bill Paxon, their telegenic rising star, thinks he has a solution. Americans don't like paying taxes, right? Okay, let's abolish them. Americans don't like the IRS, either – so let's abolish that, too.

A bad joke, you say? A parody of political pandering? Not at all. Paxon last September introduced HR 2483, a bill that "prohibits the imposition of any tax by the Internal Revenue Code" after Dec. 31, 2000. It exempts – in an unexplained moment of weakness – Social Security taxes. It already has garnered 87 co-sponsors in the House.

"We [would] eliminate the overwhelming majority of the 5.5 million words in that Tax Code," Paxon said, "and, frankly" – please note that frankness – "eliminate the need for most, if not all, of the 113,000 folks who work at the Internal Revenue Service."

You may recall Paxon as the husband of ex-congresswoman Susan Molinari, now a television personality, and the father of baby Suzie, one of the stars of the 1996 Republican convention in San Diego. In case you don't, Paxon would like to remind you, frequently. When he introduced his bill to abolish the tax code, he happened to mention that "my wife Susan and I are very proud parents of a 16-month-old daughter, little Suzie. And every night, as she is sleeping, I look in and feel that it is our job to make certain that her future is better than the ones that our parents handed to us."

How will Suzie's future be more secure without federal taxes? Doesn't Suzie want America to have an army, a border patrol, a national cancer institute?

It turns out that Suzie's father isn't really against those things, nor against collecting taxes. He just wants a different system of taxes, one "that allows the greatness of this country to flow from the American people, not from Washington, D.C." How this new and improved tax system would be administered without the help of some of those "113,000 folks" at the doomed IRS Paxon, frankly, doesn't make clear.

Now, no one would disagree that the tax code is too complicated and the IRS is too often rude, inefficient and even abusive. Everyone wants tax reform, everyone wants tax simplification. But very few taxpayers favor abolishing the tax deductions and tax credits that benefit them. That applies to Republicans like Paxon, who, for example, have favored taxing capital gains at a different rate from other income. It applies to Democrats like Clinton, who every other day seems to propose amending the tax code to promote child care, college education or some other social goal. It applies to business interests, whose contributions Paxon spends so much time soliciting on behalf of his GOP colleagues, and it applies to his ordinary constituents, who treasure their home mortgage deductions, their charitable contribution deductions and so on.

Paxon acknowledges that Congress is responsible for having made the tax code so complicated. That's why, he says, the only way to get true reform is to blow the whole thing up and force Congress to start from scratch.

But blowing up the system, and pandering to people's natural dislike of the tax collector, carries risks of its own. Consider Russia, where few people honestly declare their income or willingly pay their taxes. In the first six months of last year (the most recent period for which figures are available), 10 Russian tax collectors were killed in the line of duty, 40 were injured, and two were missing – not to mention 520 cases of arson, death threats, document thefts and other crimes against the Russian IRS. Russia, as a result, can barely function as a state. Its soldiers are underfed – in some cases, literally have starved. Its teachers go for months without being paid. Its nuclear power plants deteriorate day by day.

Russia is an extreme case, but many other countries struggle to promote tax compliance. In the United States, 83 percent of taxpayers file honestly and on time, never having run-ins with the IRS, a record that is "pretty much the envy" of other countries, says Republican Rep. Rob Portman, who spent a year soberly studying the IRS and how it can be improved. The American compliance record stems from a combination of civic obligation, fear of audit and confidence that everyone else on the block is chipping in, too. Remove any one of those, and you could quickly undermine the whole system.

Portman and Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey led a commission that roundly and justifiably criticized the IRS and produced a series of recommendations to make it "fair, efficient, and friendly." Paxon, on the other hand, proposes no alternative.

"Some of us make choices and take sides in the debate," he noted, and then added – with apparent and inexplicable pride – "I do not."

Some people like the idea of a flat tax, he observed, while others champion a national sales tax. "Now, those are two good ideas," Paxon tolerantly allowed. "I am sure there are many more out there out across this country." So Paxon's proposal (to stretch that word) is to let the American people ("our employers") decide.

How exactly would this abdication of leadership work? Again, Paxon isn't clear. "The only solution is the solution that moves this country forward to give ourselves a better future," he said. Can't argue with that. As for fleshing it out a bit – well, maybe Suzie has some thoughts.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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