The press releases are worded differently, but they all say pretty much the same thing: Tax simplification is a wonderful idea, but it would be a mistake of potentially disastrous proportions to eliminate the tax exemption for (blank).
You need look no further than the letterhead to know what to put in the blank. Unfortunately, the sum of the blanks is what has created the unfair, counterproductive and incomprehensible mishmash that is the U.S. Tax Code.
It isn't just that every industry, interest group and trade association is looking to its own selfish interests (though there is some of that). But there are real issues of justice and public policy that the writers of the press releases would like to call to your attention.
Take the proposal to eliminate (or at least drastically reduce) the exemption for charitable contributions. A good many worthwhile programs -- boys' clubs, schools, museums, homes for children in trouble -- would be in serious trouble if their benefactors were no longer able to reap tax benefits from their contributions.
Private charities would lose up to $12 billion a year, according to United Way of America, creating "the first decline in charitable giving since the Depression of the 1930s." United Way alone would lose some $300 million. Worse, the loss would come at a time when the government, having cut back on its own support of social services, is calling on the private sector to do more.
The homebuilding industry (with a vigorous assent from homeowners) defend the deduction for mortgage interest, predicting economic disaster if it were to be disallowed.
Taxing employee benefits (as several simplification proposals would do) would cause "higher Medicare costs, welfare costs and hospital bad debts," according to the American Council of Life Insurance and the Health Insurance Association of America. They explain that the present system of group health works because nearly every eligible employee signs up. Tax the benefits, they argue, and the young and the healthy may drop out, driving up the cost for the older, less healthy workers who remain.
Even state and local governments are pleading the case for their special benefit: the tax- exempt bond. Its elimination, they argue, would greatly increase the cost of financing bridges, public housing, airports and other public works, either eliminating much-needed services or drastically increasing user fees and local taxes.
Even the "three-martini lunch," the tax-reformer's favorite whipping boy, gets a stout defense from the restaurant industry, which argues that eliminating tax deductions for business-related meals would put a lot of restaurants out of business, wiping out thousands of jobs and reducing tax revenues. And anyway, a fancy lunch with a client may be as legitimate a cost of doing business as a taxi operator's gasoline.
And so it goes: with churches, who defend such tax-exempt benefits as ministers' homes; with the Pentagon, which says housing allowances for servicemen shouldn't be subject to taxation any more than the cost of on-post barracks; with manufacturers who say elimination of the tax breaks in the Accelerated Cost Recovery System would cripple American business.
Every interest group can make a case for its own break -- which is how the breaks came to be enacted in the first place.
What none of the press releases will tell you is this bottom-line truth: Every tax dollar one group saves is a dollar the rest of us have to make up.