When the Kennedy administration proposed modest restrictions on deductions for business meals in the early 1960s, the most heated reaction fell on Mortimer M. Caplin. Although Caplin - then commissioner of Internal Revenue - actually had nothing to do with the proposal, an irate Washington waiter deliberately spilled a lunch platter on him in protest. The bill got through intact, but Caplin - or, at least his pants - got taken to the cleaners.
No such untidy splattering has yet befallen any member of the Carter administration, but the image still applies - symbolically, at least. Initial reactions show that the president's $24.5 billion tax package - which conspicuously includes further limitations on business-lunch deductions - is being dumped on by everyone from conservatives to Democratic liberals. The only major question is, how much of the overall program will survive?
The criticism is surprising because, as tax proposals go, this one would seem spiced especially for the tastes of a modern Democratic Congress. The tax cuts Carter proposed for individuals are dutifully skewed toward lower income families. The corporate tax reductions are larger than business expected. And the proposals for "tax reform" generally are modest, though respectable - with no really sweeping changes.
Joseph A. Pechman, the Brookings Institution's top tax expert and a prominent liberal economist, praises the new Carter package as "a substantial step toward improving the tax system." In terms of overall fiscal policy, the president's proposals for $24.5 billion in net tax reductions are "just about right," and the criticism is mostly carping by special-interest groups, Pechman says.
Yet preliminary comments from members of the key congressional tax-writing committees indicate Congress most likely will reshape the package substantially - first to provide bigger cuts for middle-income tax payers, and then to scrap most of the "reform" proposals. The law makers even could brush aside Carter's centerpiece proposal to replace the present $750 personal exemption with a $240-a-person credit.
And the administration has been hit with a plateful of criticism in recent days resulting from analyses showing that, for sizeable groups of taxpayers, the reductions won't be enough to offset the combined impact of inflation and higher Social Security payroll taxes. Indeed, families earning more than $20,000 a year still would suffer a larger overall tax bite despite the proposed reductions in income taxes.
Some of the potential problems with the Carter tax package:
The proposal to replace the familiar $750-a-dependent personal exemption with a new $240-a-person tax credit - a device intended orginally merely to simplify preparation of tax returns - would distort the present tax rate structure seriously, amounting to what some critics charge is a step toward redistribution of income. (The Treasury has tried to offset this by rejuggling the tax rates some, but the criticism remains.)
Because a credit is worth more than an exemption to those with less taxable income to offset, the plan admittedly would provide a proportionally larger tax break for poorer families. But even liberals complain it would give an inordinate cut to lower-income tax payers, while simultaneously penalizing those in the upper-middle-income brackets. It also would scotch the longstanding principle of exempting the first $750 of all taxpayer's income from taxation.
Most tax experts - both liberal and conservative - agree that Carter probably would have done better simply by increasing the existing $750-a-person exemption to $1,000 - retaining the "principle" of exempting the first several hundred dollars of a family's income and keeping the present tax-rate structure intact. Some say Congress eventually may wind up doing just when it revamps the Carter package.
The proposal to limit the business-lunch deduction is regarded by many as dubious from a technical viewpoint - apart from any self-serving protests by big corporations. While it's true, as the administration contends, that the present writeoff forces taxpayers to "subsidize" part of a meal the businessmen would have to eat anyway, the lunches do accomplish something for a corporation besides simply feeding executives. And abuses are subject to IRS audit.
Tax purists argue that if the administration feels that strongly about the equity issue, then why not come right out and require individual executives to count the meal's cost as income on their personal income-tax returns, just as though the luncheon were a fringe benefit? (Treasury officials insist this would be too difficult administratively, but others dispute that point.)
Although Carter ultimately proposed giving business a heftier-than-expected cut in corporate taxes - reducing the present 48 per cent rate to 44 per cent by 1980 - he also recommended a costly $2.2 billion expansion of the investment tax credit, which many economists regard as ineffective in spurring needed spending on new plant and equipment. Conservatives argue the money would be better used by reducing the corporate rate even further.
There are questions over whether the President was as shrewd as some of his advisers think in scrapping his major campaign promises to crack down on special tax treatment of capital gains and to reduce the present "double taxation" of profits and dividends. Congress seems almost as opposed to the scaled-down "tax reform" package Carter finally proposed as it might have been to the more comprehensive version. Now the momentum is gone for good.
Except for the debate over the shift to a credit, however, most of this criticism is a lot less important than it seems. As W. Michael Blumenthal, the Secretary of the Treasury, points out, the administration has proposed a relatively standard Democratic tax-cut package, of about the right proportions, aimed primarily at those who need it most. "I think we've done about all that we can do," the secretary says.
What has the critics upset, however, is precisely that the package is so skewed: Although the overall $24.5 billion in net tax cuts that Carter has proposed would offset the impact of inflation and higher Social Security taxes for the economy as a whole - as Carter promised - it wouldn't provide relief for large groups of individual taxpayers. The tax reductions are so tilted in favor of lower-income taxpayers that the middle brackets often end up behind.
Rudolph G. Penner, former budget economist in the Ford administration, points out that, when updated income figures are used, the Carter package would produce effective tax increases for two key categories of workers - families of four earning more than $17,000 now, and two-earner families making $23,000 and up. Moreover, the rise would "come on top of" other recent tax changes, all of which favored the lower brackets, he points out.
Administration officials counter, correctly, that, in statistical terms, at least, the tax package still provides significant income-tax relief for the "bulk of" America's taxpayers - a proportion they say accounts for some 94 per cent of the nation's 88 million tax returns. As Blumenthal complains to critics, you can't draft a major tax bill that will cover a much larger group than that. The increase stem largely from congressionally mandated Social Security increases. And the White House had only a small part in those.
But from Congress' perspective, that only begs the question. Although the taxpayers who earn $20,000 to $40,000 a year may be among the wealthiest in the nation statistically, they think of themselves as "middle income" and are the most articulate in complaining about their tax burdens to Congress. (Some wag cracked recently that senators usually don't know anyone who makes less than $30,000 a year.)
Moreover, when it comes to considering individual categories of taxpayers, the median income for families is well above the $13,000 or so the Treasury uses for the nation as a whole. A recent study by the Conference Board, a New York-based research group, showed that one out of every five families in the nation now earns $25,000 or more a year. And half the nation's families are two-earner families - another group hit hard by the Carter package.
The "tax reform" portion of the package is just as controversial as the tax-cut provisions, but less vulnerable from a policy viewpoint. Indeed, most of Carter's "reforms" have been on liberals' shopping lists for years. And the changes Carter has recommended would affect a broad array of taxpayers, from rich corporations to middle-income taxpayers. Included are cut-backs in deductions for medical care and for state and local sales taxes.
The problem is, most of those affecting big corporations probably won't get through Congress, if initial reaction from key House and Senate leaders is any indicator. The law makers already have served notice they don't intend to buy Carter's proposal to trim back business-lunch deductions, or his proposals to cut back two big foreign tax breaks. That leaves most of the big revenue pickup in the package falling on moderate and middle-income tax payers.
What the administration faces now is the dangerous prospect that Congress will enlarge the tax reductions for middle-income taxpayers and at the same time reject most of Carter's $9.4 billion in revenue-raising "reforms" - a combination that would boost the net cost of the package beyond the $24.5 billion Carter has allocated, and bloat his already-huge budget deficit. White House officials now seem far more concerned about the size of the package than its final makeup.
But holding the line won't be that easy. The Ways and Means Committee, for one, already has served notice it intends to revamp the Carter package in precisely as the administration fears, with many members bent on tacking on pet proposals of their own. The panel's chairman, Rep. Al Ullman (D-Ore.), last week proposed a plan to reduce the "double taxation" of profits and dividends that alone would add on about $1.7 billion. He also wants to expand last year's jobs tax credit.
And the Senate is likely to throw in dozens more new tax breaks for special interest groups, turning the tax measure into its traditional "Christmas-tree" bill. Only this month, the Finance Committee reaffirmed its somewhat cautious approach to "tax reform" by voting to undo one of the major "reforms" in the 1976. Tax Reform Act - a provision that would have increased capital gains taxes for heirs who sell inherited property.
The White House has some wild cards to use if the bidding gets too high. Carter could make up $1.2 billion of any excess congressional generosity by scrapping his proposal to repeal the 4 per cent telephone excise tax, a recommendation which isn't all that popular in Congress. Or he could seek to limit the reduction in the corporate tax rate to 3 percentage points instead of 4. Still, it's Congress - not the President - which has the biggest say in this.
In one sense, the administration might have had difficulty with any package it proposed, simply because Congress - for a vareity of reasons - seems determined not to accept anything from Jimmy Carter. The President's relations with Capitol Hill have left him with few chips to cash. Too many law makers remember his abandonment of the $50 tax rebate last spring - after many of them stuck their necks out for it. There's nothing to gain now from going along again.
But Carter also is plagued by having proposed a traditional skewed-toward-the-poor tax-cut package in a time when Congress is more worried about middle and upper-middle-income constituents. The articulate $20,000-to-$30,000 families were willing enough to settle for the short end of the tax cuts in earlier years, but now - with sharp increases in Social Security taxes biting into their paychecks - their charity begins at home.
It will be a measure of Carter's skill as a politician to see how well the package fares in the several months of wrangling in the House and the Senate. Blumenthal warned recently that the law makers must choose between covering any enlargement of Carter's tax cuts by accepting more revenue raising "reform" measures or watching the budget deficit soar above $61 billion. "You can't have it both ways," he said. But that goes for presidents as well.
Robert M. Brandon, director of the Public Citizen Tax Reform Research Group, warns that success of the package "will depend largely on how much the president wants to go on the stump to sell this stuff." If Carter pushes hard - possibly with a series of nationwide television appeals - a good portion of the "tax reform" package might get through. If not, the administration may wind up the way Caplin did - with the best part dumped back in its lap.