Barber B. Conable Jr. is living a life of what he calls "bucolic idyll" in Alexander, New York. Formerly ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, Conable stepped down in 1984 because, he said, "Twenty years in Congress is long enough."
Tax reform is not a new idea to me. We've been through seven major tax reform bills, three of them in the first four years of the Reagan adinistration. It seems to me people will always believe they are paying too much tax because somebody else isn't paying enough. I suspect that were we to pass the Reagan tax reform proposal right now, by next August there would be a call for tax reform again.
In other words, it's a shifting sands kind of subject. Taxes are a sensitive issue between the government and the people, and a revenue-neutral bill in particular will not leave people with the sense the millenium has arrived and they are now very happy about taxes.
The deficit is a major issue. This Congress' and this president's place in history are more likely to be determined by successful dealing with the deficit than by once again passing another tax reform bill. I'm not implying the tax system is perfect. I suspect we'll go on changing it from time to time to be responsive to perceived inequities in it and that's appropriate. I just don't believe you're going to pass one massive, radical tax reform bill and have everybody satisfied forever. As a matter of fact, it's my impression that the more you change the tax law, the more the demand for change will grow. People like change but they like some degree of stability. If you have a great big bill, then there will be a whole lot of people who will feel their toes have been stepped on because they had expectations about the tax law that are no longer being met.
Politicians advocate results. Ronald Reagan has been advocating a "fair, simple tax bill." Nobody asked the question, would a simple tax bill be perceived as fair if it were passed and applied to a complex economy? While politicians can advocate results, legislators must find a way to get there. I think it's very hard to find a simple tax bill that would be perceived as fair when it's going to be applied to the same kind of economy we had before we changed the tax law.
My impression is that if we were to swim upstream to 1913 and pass an eight-page internal revenue code, we would then have to have 800,000 pages of federal tax regulations to apply the broad-brush description of income and so forth to the myriad of different circumstances applying in the economy. And if we had an eight-page Internal Revenue code and 800,000 pages of regulations, we would have transferred significant taxing authority from the legislative branch to the executive branch, something I doubt Congress is going to want to do.
I think one of the prices people have to pay for having the people's representatives pass tax laws is a degree of complexity. People are going to be somewhat reluctant to transfer taxing authority to the tax regulators if that's the effect of passing a very simple tax law.
I would not be upset by a tax increase to the extent the president seems to be. I really expect that sooner or later they will have to have a tax increase. I personally prefer the income tax as a mode of taxation. It's progressive, based on ability to pay. I would not favor an import surcharge. It's one of those things people turn to in frustration, the kind of thing that appeals to political minds.
I believe the president is on the right track generally in trying to broaden the base of taxation by eliminating preferences so that rates can be kept as low as possible. But I believe it's more likely we will have incremental change rather than radical change. The problem is he's afraid that if you eliminate preferences and don't start with the idea of revenue neutrality, there will be tax increases, which he doesn't favor. I would not be that upset about the elimination of those preferences that benefit the few rather than the many, that have become historical anachronisms or distort the flow of capital too much in the economy, even though they resulted in a tax increase. But it's more likely to be done successfully on an incremental basis because you don't have coalitions of losers. He (Reagan) is changing so much that Congress has difficulty dealing with coalitions of losers with mixed bags of motives.
Congress can compromise a simple idea or one that does not involve a whole lot of different tradeoffs. It's hard for Congress to handle that complex a thing that results from changing everything in the code at once. If you step on a lot of toes, everybody recoils at once and nothing happens. If you step on a few toes, you can isolate those that are being biased by having things that are attractive to the rest.