THERE IS A nice -- though not coincidental--symbolism in the fact that on this, our national day of tax reckoning, the Senate will return to the question of withholding taxes owed on interest and dividend payments. Last month, when opponents of the new law were holding jobs and Social Security legislation hostage to their repeal efforts, Senate leaders agreed to take up the repeal amendment with a trade measure scheduled for floor action today.
Opponents of withholding, led by Sen. Robert Kasten, like the timing because they claim that the general taxpayer--now presumably at peak irritation with the IRS--regards interest and dividend withholding as yet another unwarranted intrusion by the Treasury. In fact, for the vast majority of honest taxpayers, withholding of taxes owed on interest and dividends promises a great benefit--relief from part of the enormous burden of paying the taxes rightfully owed by tax evaders. That point was made with great force yesterday by an extraordinary array of consumer-minded groups brought together by Sens. Dole, Kennedy, Danforth, Metzenbaum and Durenberger. Included were labor unions, civil rights, retail trade, consumer advocacy, women's and senior citizens' organizations--the last being none too flattered by the bankers' allegations that withholding was too complicated for even the well-off elderly to cope with.
The point that these groups made was simple. Despite all the hysteria stirred up by the bankers and savings institutions, withholding is at most a minor inconvenience. Most taxpayers will gladly endure it since it means that their own tax bills can be lighter by the $20 billion or more in unpaid taxes that the Treasury will be able to collect over the next five years. Withholding will allow the IRS to collect that money far more cheaply and unintrusively than would be the case if it were required to track down and litigate with each of the many taxpayers who now fail to pay taxes they owe on interest and dividend receipts.
True, the bankers will find themselves dealing with some angry customers. That's because many people have been led by the banks' own propaganda to believe that a new tax is being imposed. Sen. Kasten himself has contributed to this misunderstanding by mailing out a flier to his constituents boldly labeled "How to Stop the New Tax on Your Savings." Withholding is not a new tax. It is simply a fair and efficient way to begin collecting some of the $90 billion or so in taxes that goes uncollected each year-- the bill for which is ultimately footed by honest taxpayers. Much more needs to be done to get every citizen to pay his fair share of the tax burden. But if Congress balks at this important step, it is likely, as Sen. Dole remarked yesterday, that tax reform will be stopped "dead in its tracks for 20 years."