It had been one of those weeks in which, it seemed, all was well, if not with the world, at least with Washington. Congress remained away, the restaurants were uncrowded, the pace of the city was leisurely, and the President, newly returned, was playing it low. When he did appear at his first press conference of the new year, he had only balm to offer - good news with the hope of better to come. Unemployment had dropped to the lowest point in three years and the President was showing how much he understood some of the burdens borne by most of us. He was really going to go ahead and see that we got tax cuts before this new year was out. What's more, he was sensitive to the frustrating feeling that, these days, you're lucky if you manage to come close to staying even. As he said:
"With the encroachment of inflation, it moves people into a higher tax bracket - paying a higher percentage of their income in taxes - just because the dollars that they earn are cheaper and they get more of them. So with inflation you have in effect the imposition of higher and higher tax rates for the American people if the laws don't change."
That's why, he said, "I want to reduce the rate of taxes paid by the American people." Then, the promise: "I think that a substantial tax reduction is needed in 1978, and I believe the Congress will agree."
Oh, happy news.
With that glow, and a fresh snow to grace the city, the days ahead seemed promising. Then the paycheck arrived, the first of this wonderful new year.
Wham! Three under that little box labeled FICA - Social Security, as most of us know it - were those little numbers that together form figures, that mean deductions, that add up to pain. After an absence of months, Uncle Sam was taking out Social Security again - and how. Twenty dollars a month more than last year at this time, and, all in all, one big bite.
The first, emotional (which is to say, unreasoned) reaction was, "So those are the increases the Congress was laboring and fighting over until almost the very end of the year." But that's not right. These increases were scheduled to take place, anyway. The worst yet to come. Much worse.
That there's nothing new under the sun hardly needs restating. But some old things have a way of lasting longer, it seems. Like taxes. As Luke reported, in first telling that happy story of Bethlehem:
"And it came to pass it those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed . . ."
The bad news before the good, biblical style. Here's our bad news: this year's FICA increase, for those earning $20,000 and over, pales with the succeeding scheduled increases. A year from now, after the members of Congress have stood for election the real whacks occur. Next January, the increase over what we had been paying will be 45 per cent. Up and up it goes: by 1982, a rise of 121 per cent. By 1985, an increase of 178 per cent. And by 1987, the payments will be more than three times what they were last year.
Everyone will be paying more, progressively, starting next year. And the ceiling for the tax keeps rising, too. Last year, for example, the most the government got from anyone was $965. That was based on earnings of up to $16,500. Ten years later, citizens will be taxed on earnings of up to $42,600. And the government will be taking more than $3,000 from each taxpayer in those higher brackets.
Small wonder that that debate in Congress was so heated. The Social Security bill was, indeed, what one of the Republican members aptly called it: "a ticking time bomb . . . a Christmas tree time bomb that this Congress is leaving for the American people."
That pre-Christmas debate is worth examing in some detail, for it includes the seeds of greater political debates to come.
Here, culled from those exchanges, are a few pertinent opposing views:
Claude pepper, the Florida Democrat: "This is one of the most important measures which has ever been before this house because it sustains and insures the hopes of millions of Americans, who have no other source of income in their later years except what they derive from Social Security, that this fund is going to be a solvent fund and what we promised them is going to be delivered to them.
"This special feature will strengthen the Social Security system, not just for the immediate future, but far into the next century. While this may entail increases in the tax-rates commencing in the coming year and through the last years of the century and even beyond, the benefits afforded to our citizens dating back to my first years in the Senate during the New Deal era will be guaranteed."
John Anderson, the Illinois Republican: "We are being asked to consider the immediate passage of a conference report that will raise $227 billion in more taxes over the next 10 years. At the same time, we are being asked to wait for income tax cuts that are intended to offset the payroll tax increases.
"In other words, the American taxpayers are not being asked to take the bitter with the sweet. They are being asked to take the bitter now and to wait for the vague promises of tax relief to be realized later. That, I submit, is a fraud upon the American people."
Bitter or sweet notwithstanding, the biggest tax bill in history - well, maybe biggest since that Caesar Augustus decree - has been signed into law. And we haven't even begun to feel its impact yet. It's another fact of life over which, it seems, we have no alternative but to learn to live with.
Now about that presidentially promised tax cut . . .