HOW WILL the conferees stuff all the costly lollipops in the House and Senate tax bills into the single bill they now intend to send the president to be vetoed? That's the only question remaining, now that both bills have been passed. But the conferees have a way out if the final product costs too much; they can simply defer some more effective dates until after the 10-year period used to estimate revenue loss. That masks the cost and, if they defer the right provisions, will help to obscure the regressive character of the bill as well. Both houses already have done a fair amount of it. It hardly matters if you consider they're writing political fiction rather than legislation.
The president will be right to cast the veto. The bills are sound-and-light shows. The sponsors say they'll be financed out of a $1 trillion surplus over the next 10 years in other than Social Security funds, but most of the surplus will materialize only if future Congresses make deeper cuts in most domestic spending programs than most of the tax-cutters themselves are prepared to support -- and the cost of the tax cut when fully effective would far exceed the surplus anyway. Mr. Clinton has stated the broad objections. A tax cut of this magnitude would strand the government, leave it without the means to meet its obligations, including those under Medicare. It would set the stage for another era of borrow-and-spend such as that from which the country is only now emerging. A likely response of the Federal Reserve would be to hold interest rates higher than otherwise, creating at least as many losers as the tax cut would create winners. The tax cuts would disproportionately benefit upper-income people, while much of the constraint they would impose on government would be felt by those at lower income levels, etc.
But these bills are not just defective in the aggregate. Many of the key provisions the conferees now will attempt to blend would be bad policy -- the wrong tax choice -- in any case. The leading provision of the House bill is a 10 percent, so-called across-the-board cut in income tax rates that sounds as if it would affect all taxpayers equally but that in fact would mean much more to those at the top. Their taxes would be reduced by roughly 4 percent of their high incomes, while the liabilities of those at the bottom would be reduced by 1.5 percent of their much lower incomes. In the name of even-handedness, the tax code would be made less progressive.
A provision in the Senate bill would let more people into the lowest tax bracket. It sounds as if that would help those toward the bottom, but in fact most people already are entirely in the lowest bracket. They pay only the bottom rate. Most of the benefit of widening the bracket would go to those at higher income levels. The Senate bill also would abolish the so-called marriage penalty, but that, too, turns out to be a gloss for making the code less progressive. Income is taxed progressively by household; when a working couple marries, their combined income often moves them into a higher bracket. The law adjusts for this to a degree, such that most married couples pay less than their combined tax would be if single; they get a marriage bonus. To adjust more is to risk discriminating against single taxpayers. The House bill would provide more limited relief mainly to middle-income couples, a much more defensible approach.
The Senate bill would provide new tax subsidies for retirement savings. It's a worthy cause, but the bill is written in such a way that the subsidies would go mainly to upper-income people who could be expected to save the money anyway. The savings proposal the president included in his budget is much better; savings accounts would be created for lower- and middle-income people who can't afford to save on their own. The Senate bill would repeal and the House bill significantly ease the estate tax, which arguably ought to be eased in some respects, particularly as it applies to family-owned businesses. But this is a tax that already has been shaped so that only the wealthiest 2 percent of the population pay it; it is they who would be the sole beneficiaries of repeal. The House bill also would cut the capital gains tax, which proponents say would stimulate investment. Do they really think a stock market whose exuberance already has the Federal Reserve in a lather needs a boost?
This is legislation that has almost no redeeming features. Its likely effect would be to weaken both the government and the economy while redistributing income in the wrong direction. The sponsors think they make a strong political point in urging it. They do, but the point is not in their favor.