FOR A NUMBER of years the administration and others have been playing with ways of using the tax code to help parents send their children to college. It's an idea that only the hardiest politician will oppose -- Who doesn't want kids to go to college? Who doesn't know how much it costs? -- and now it comes wrapped in the hem of the flag as well. The latest, relatively modest version is to use not formal savings accounts as the administration once proposed, but U.S. savings bonds. A family would buy a patriotic bond (with after-tax income), and when it was cashed for college the interest would be tax-free.
Such senior and unalike members of Congress as Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, chairman and ranking Republican of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee; Lloyd Bentsen, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee; and Senate minority leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole have all endorsed such legislation. The vice president has also been for it, and now the president has signed on as well.
This is a picnic that badly needs a skunk, and we suppose we're it. The savings bonds are a bad idea. Higher education is not the most urgent place to spend the next federal dollar, and the tax code should not be the spoon. The president is hopeless on these issues. But Congress should be thinking of ways to raise taxes, not lower them; to reduce the deficit rather than compound it; and to help the poor, we believe, before rushing to the aid of the middle class, which this idea would mainly do.
Congress should also do its spending on the spending side of the budget, not the tax side. That was the whole meaning of the Tax Reform Act of 1986. It was agreed that tax subsidies are inefficient and too often have unintended results; the government can't control them as well as it can spending. The corollary is that for every hole punched in the income base, such as this would be, tax rates have to be that much higher to maintain revenues, and the higher the rates the greater the demand for further holes to shelter the remaining income.
No one should want to start down this road again -- and certainly not so soon. Too many people are waiting in the weeds with just a little favor or two they'd like to do again, a preference or two to restore. In his legislative message, the president didn't embrace just the college savings bond idea. He wants to restore a lower effective tax rate for capital gains, extend an expiring research and development tax credit and set up low-tax enterprise zones.
Federal aid to higher education was greatly expanded in 1978. Not all that increase is yet digested. There continue to be problems particularly with the guaranteed student loan program; half the $3 billion spent on it each year goes not for the interest subsidies that Congress intended when it set the program up, but to pay off defaults. It's not too much to ask that the existing programs be fixed before a new one is added. What you have here is an election-year shoving match to score points on the education issue by creating a relatively minor program that is poor fiscal, tax and probably social policy besides. Its sponsors should give it up.