THE CONFUSION over tax reform is rapidly deepening. Can you still touch bottom? Barely.
President Reagan's comments from day to day suggest a degree of imprecision in his intentions. When pressed, he amiably waves away questions by saying that he hasn't yet had time to look into the subject carefully. But the things that he says don't seem to fit together very clearly.
The Treasury Department's proposal set, for example, a maximum tax rate of 35 percent on personal income. It's a highly intricate plan devised to produce precisely as much revenue as the present law -- neither more nor less. But Mr. Reagan has not committed himself to the Treasury plan on any specific point. In his State of the Union message last week he said that he will propose "a top rate of no more than 35 percent, and possibly lower." Possibly lower? It begins to sound like a tax cut.
But that's not what the president has in mind. The Wall Street Journal asked him about that in its interesting interview the day after Mr. Reagan delivered the message. He was explicit. He wants the tax reform bill to be, as the technicians say, revenue-neutral. The Treasury proposal maintains neutrality by lowering taxes on individuals and shifting more of the load onto corporations. The Journal asked him whether he favored that.
The president replied that he had not studied the proposal closely, but assumed -- correctly -- that businesses would lose some of their present deductions. "No," he said, "I would have to be convinced of the need to do that because I'm a believer that one day we must recognize that only people pay taxes." That's quite true, but people pay some of their taxes through corporations -- and why not? Shareholders pay a share in lower dividends and customers pay a share in higher prices, the precise division between the two being the subject of endless debate. But if the president doesn't like the idea of increasing the taxation of corporations, how will he get the personal income tax rates down to a maximum of 35 percent "and possibly lower"?
The White House explains that Mr. Reagan himself will not take a precise position on these issues just yet. Instead the secretary of the Treasury, James Baker, will negotiate with congressional leaders a bill that has bipartisan support. Bipartisan support is essential. But it's going to be a real challenge to work out a bill that reduces personal tax rates more than the Treasury proposal, revokes fewer business deductions than the Treasury proposal, and yet raises as much money as the Treasury proposal. Sen. Robert Dole, the majority leader, had it just about right when he observed that tax reform is now on the front burner -- but "I'm not certain whether they have turned the burner on."