Can Congress assemble a majority for tax simplification?

In the last two elections, voters have kept Republicans in control of one side of Capitol Hill and Democrats in control of the other. But there's one big difference between 1982 and 1984. In 1982 the leadership on both sides was strengthened: Majority Leader Howard Baker gained one Republican senator and Tip O'Neill gained 26 seats and working control of the House.

This year, leadership on both sides emerges weaker from the election. Tip O'Neill's Democrats lost a little more than a dozen seats, and the Senate Republicans have lost two seats on balance -- and Howard Baker, who has retired. Leaders on both sides may be justified in sighing with relief that they haven't lost more. About half the Democrats' House losses were in Texas and North Carolina, where members aren't always leadership supporters. Their losses outside the South were minimal and mostly due to the factors (retirement, age, redistricting) that make for random motion in any House election. In the Senate, Republicans could have lost many more seats, though they came heartbreakingly close to upset victories in West Virginia and Nebraska.

Still, the leadership did sustain losses that will make assembling majorities for major legislation more difficult for anyone in 1985 and 1986. These losses also raise an intriguing possibility bearing on the first major issue likely to reach the spotlight: tax simplication.

The lead in assembling a majority may have to come not from the leadership, which in the persons of O'Neill and Baker produced the gas tax and Social Security bills in 1982-83, but from backbenchers, even members of the minority. And -- in contrast to what has happened since the budget and tax bills of 1981 -- from the Reagan administration itself.

In a legislature the assembling of a majority is never automatic. Opponents of one or another change may combine and prevent anything from passing, or from coming to a vote. Tip O'Neill has fewer than 218 Democrats on many issues now. The incoming Senate Republicans don't have a leader yet; they vote Nov. 28. The five candidates have few if any public commitments, and there's no clear favorite. Any of them -- Dole, Domenici, Lugar, McClure and Stevens -- will have a harder time than Baker did in welding the 53 Republicans into a working majority and attracting Democratic support. And if O'Neill and the new Senate majority leader can't put together a majority, there's nothing that guarantees that anyone else can.

Inertia may yet prevail on tax simplification. The Reagan administration has promised to come out with some sort of recommendation in December. There's some thinking that it may be similar to the Bradly-Gephardt flattened tax bill, sponsored by two relatively junior Democrats, or to the more flattened Kemp-Kasten bill, which was designed to be responsive to Bradley-Gephardt.

The idea behind these has great appeal: many people on the political right and left would like to broaden the tax base, to get rid of the thousands of exemptions and deductions that distort the economy and create inequities, and to lower tax rates. Even many liberals would be willing to give up a nominally more progressive rate structure, which has been undermined anyway, in return for simplification. President Reagan has made the point in the campaign and after that tax simplification is an immediate priority.

But it faces great obstacles on both sides of Capitol Hill. Neither Bradley-Gephardt nor Kemp-Kasten has the support of the leadership of either house or of the tax-writing committees. O'Neill in particular is in no mood to cooperate or compromise with Republicans on a tax bill. Two of the leading sponsors, Bradley and Kemp, are in the minorities in their houses (and are mentioned as national candidates for 1988, something that doesn't help them get bills through on the Hill).

The institutional interests of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees, which wrote all the deductions and exemptions into law, work against simplification. So do the hordes of lobbyists ready to point out that their tax break is uniquely beneficial and worthy. Adding together all the legislators who are responsive to one or the other of these claims, you can easily come up with a majority against any tax simplification scheme.

The upshot is that the likeliest parliamentary coalition for a tax simplification bill, even one supported by the administration, is one that is led, at least initially, by backbenchers. At the least it can't be put together in one meeting, as Baker and O'Neill put together the gas tax. And it's not something that will necessarily happen if it's put together separately in both houses: tenuous majorities could pass different bills in each house and remain quite unwilling to compromise on their differences.

The president is approaching this issue with the sunny optimism that has served him so well. He may suppose that the administration can simply announce some general principles and then get the leadership to assemble cooperative majorities for a detailed bill on Capitol Hill. It's not likely to be so easy. The window of opportunity for tax simplification seems, for a moment, to be open. The public is awaiting some major initiative from the president after his great victory, and lingering concern in Washington about the deficit helps drive people toward tax simplification. But it doesn't necessarily cut the deficit much in the short run, and if the Hill's attention is not directed to the subject soon and seriously, it will soon drift to the unpleasant, slogging work of putting together the budget for another fiscal year.

The progress of tax simplification will answer the question about Congress and the government generally raised by the election results: is anyone really in control?