Question: It's another big congressional election year. There's a Democrat in the White House and a Democratic majority in Congress. A president who won office by promising to overhaul the "disgraceful" tax system has proposed a massive tax-reduction and tax-reform plan. And the nation is being hit by a taxpayers' revolt. What would you expect the lawmakers to do?

Cut taxes even more than the president suggested - right?


That reasoning may be fine for the nation's political science texts. As every student of government knows, Congress always cuts taxes in an election year anyway. If the president proposes a big tax cut, the lawmakers simply will enlarge it even further. They did it to Richard Nixon in 1972. And they did it to Gerald Ford in 1976. Why not to Jimmy Carter as well?

But this year, all those bets seem to be off - much to the chagrin to professional political science pundits and President Carter. The House Ways and Means Committee began formal markup to the president's tax package last week, and not only scrapped most of his "reform" recommendations but added $2 billion to $3 billion in additional tax breaks.

Moreover, there now seems to be a growing chance the lawmakers will become so disgusted they'll scuttle Carter's tax-cut recommendations as well, and merely extend the tax reductions Congress enacted in 1976 and 1977. If there are any new "tax cuts," lawmakers say, they probably will involve a rollback of Social Security taxes - which the president doesn't want.

The administration's own lobbyists concede White House clout on the Hill is so weak they'll be lucky to escape with even a small portion of what Carter originally proposed. Even personal appeals by the president haven't helped. Carter had Ways and Means Democrats to the White House twice in the past two weeks, but got nowhere in persuading them to back his tax package.

Where did Jimmy Carter's time-honored, traditional election-year politics go wrong?

The answer still isn't clear yet, but there are enough early signals to send political science majors scurrying for first crack at the dissertation list.

To begin with, the legislators - and top administration policy makers - are confused over just what to do for the nation's ailing economy - fight inflation or fight unemployment. Taking their cue, voters keep wavering, too. The result: Lawmakers who still were worried in January about spurring the economy now are fretting about holding down the budget deficit - and the tax cuts, too.

Second, the revolt of middle-income taxpayers has been splintered by preoccupation with side issues such as Social Security taxes and college tuition credits - all of which have become code words for middle-class tax relief.Carter's problem is that each of these tax issues is so highly visible it inevitably attracts heavy support from voters - at the expense of his package.

Rep. Abner J. Mikva (D-lll), one of the Ways and Means' more astute observers of political trends, speculates that voters today are wary of a general tax cut for fear it would fuel inflation and wouldn't have enough impact on their own tax burdens. What they want, he says, is enactment of tax breaks that benefit them specifically. Hence the support for tuition credit.

The failure of Carter's reform package is the obverse of that coin.

Sure, voters tell pollsters they're for "reforming" the nation's tax system but - as a Roper study showed last summer - they aren't talking about the same thing. No matter what people say, the bottom line is they'd rather hold on to their deductions than trade them in for reforms - even if the overhaul would mean lower tax rates. So much for congressional support for reform.

Add to that Carter's lackluster performance in pushing his package - both on the Hill and with the electorate - and you have a serious policy dilemma.

As a result the Carter package now is clearly in trouble - largely because of defections by moderate and liberal Democrats. In a belated, but first step toward a possible compromise, Carter asked Ways and Means Democrats last Thursday to work with administration policy makers in an effort to draft a salvageable package. But there's no guarantee the effort will work.

Why has Carter's tax "reform" effort gone so far awry? Although it still may be a bit early for a full retrospective, observes offer this explanation:

The administration plainly bungled the initial planning of the tax package - both by vacillating during the drafting stage and by failing to listen to congressional warnings of what would and wouldn't pass. Carter first ordered tax strategists to draft a sweeping, comprehensive "reform" program, then scaled it back in the face of opposition. But he didn't cut back enough.

The tax cuts were shaped to correspond with liberal ideology, with little or no regard for this year's political reality - the revolt of upper-middle-income taxpayers. While the Carter tax cuts benefit those taxpayers who statistically are in the middle brackets, they shortchange the $17,000-to-$35,000-bracket voters, regarded by many lawmakers as middle-class.

To many analysts, Carter's biggest mistake was proposing the replacement of the present $750-a-dependent personal exemption with a new $240-a-person tax credit. While the shift would benefit the poor, it would hurt many upper-middle-income taxpayers. (Without the $240 credit, the benefits from the Carter tax reductions break along more traditional lines)

The "tax reform" proposals seemed almost calculated to rouse congressional ire. Carter's plan to limit the so-called "three-martini" lunch was widely dismissed in Washington as high-minded demagoguery. And too many of the lesser "reform" proposals were largely technical issues that are important to would-be reformers but don't have much political appeal.

The tax package was presented ineptly, inviting instant distrust of the program. Carter portrayed the package as one that simultaneously would stimulate the economy, offset the pact of inflation in pushing taxpayers into higher brackets and compensate for the new Social Security tax hikes. He said it would cut taxes for 94 percent of all Americans.

On closer examination, however, it turned out that the 94 percent of Americans would see only a cut in income-taxes - mostly in the low and lower-middle-income brackets. With Social Security taxes included, taxpayers in the $25,000-and-over brackets would suffer a tax hike. And two-earner families would wind up behind. The result: A blow to the plan's credibility.

Carter failed to promote the tax plan adequately, either to the general public or to the members of the Ways and Means Committee. It was only last week - on the first day of the panel's mark-up - that the White House finally brought itself to sponsor a citizens' committee to plug the tax plan, and even that was half-hearted.

Incredibly, although committee members repeatedly had made their views clear, Carter told senior Democrats last Thursday he had been so preoccupied with the Panama Canal treaties that he was "shocked" to learn that the tax package wasn't faring well in the committee. "Hell, we've been telling him that since November," one member said. "He just hasn't been listening."

The tax package has been buffeted by a slew of controversial side issues that have threatened to undermine it, and the White House hasn't responded.

A case in point is the move to roll back Social Security taxes. Although the lawmakers have warned repeatedly the move would be good politically and from a anti-inflation standpoint, Carter has remained rigidly opposed - mainly to avoid altering its income tax cut package. As a result, the president set himself up for a congressional rebellion - and hurt the big tax plan as well.

What can be done now to salvage the Carter program is a matter of speculation. For one thing, committee leaders want the president to trim the size of the tax cuts - from the present $25 billion in net reductions to $18 billion or $20 billion - as an anti-inflation gesture, and scrap all but a few basic reforms. They also may seek a compromise on the Social Security issue.

If Carter goes along, committee leaders say there still may be a chance of saving some of the original package. If not, the panel simply may scuttle the whole plan, acting on a proposal by Rep. Charles A. Vanik (D-Ohio) that would drop the tax reductions and "reforms" and merely extend the tax cuts Congress voted in 1976 and 1977.

The rub is, that while scrapping the $25 billion tax cut plan entirely may seem a politically attractive move as an anti-inflation gesture, analysts say it would be playing too dangerous a game with the economy. While some economists have advocated shaving the tax cuts by $5 billion or so, most still contend some kind of tax cut is needed to avert a drag in 1979.

Congressional experts say saving the tax cut now will be difficult and touchy, requiring a firm sense of political reality. Rep. Barber Conable (R-N.Y.), ranking Republican on the panel, and a man not often given to rhetoric, mused last week that "the big problem is the administration has become an irrelevance on this bill. We don't have a strong sense of direction."

What Conable hopes for its definitive, but realistic action by the White House, to work out a compromise that all sides can support.

"I wish he would sit down with the Democrats and figure out what can be done, instead of saying what's morally right," Conable told reporters. That may well be a sound piece of advice - and, coming from a Republican, in an election year - unusual, as well.