What we have here is "High Noon" played by the Marx brothers. The gunslingers are warily walking down the dusty street -- Pennsylvania Avenue -- but they are not eager to sling guns. The winner may be the one who draws last.
The president is going to submit a sort of budget, in a perfunctory sort of way. The House of Representatives, the last redoubt of Democrats, must (the law is picky about this) pass a budget. But it does not want to do that until Senate Republicans write one.
Their leader, Robert Dole, is going to run for president as a Responsible Republican, meaning one who will countenance some Social Security cuts and deeper defense cuts than the president wants. If Dole oversees Senate passage of a budget like that, House Democrats will stand back aghast, entropy will spread through Congress and there will be government by continuing resolution until 1986, which is an election year, so . . .
So let's kill time by reforming taxes. Rub, rub, rub, rub. There. We have erased every line in the wickedly complicated tax code, because Americans say they crave simplicity. And yet, and yet . . .
A few months ago the Reagan administration was said to be bent on establishing a theocracy, turning the government over to the nation's parsons. But lo! The administration's tax-simplification plan would erase the provision whereby parsons are not taxed on the value of the compensation they receive in the form of their parsonage or housing allowance. Taxing that will give the government $164 million in 1990. But that is $164 million that congregations will have to make up, or take from charities. So parsons and their flocks will put the fear of God into Congress.
Furthermore, America itself -- meaning, of course baseball -- is endangered. Last year, 15 million tickets -- one-third of all tickets sold -- were deductible as business expense. The government, in one of its sweeter moods, has declared that a major league stadium is an "appropriate business setting." For business entertainment, that is. Change that, and much revenue will be drained from sports, and Dave Winfield will not be able to live in the manner to which he is accustomed. So, sports fans, let's keep a little complexity in the tax code, to protect sports.
Now, about that progressive idea of ending the deductibility of mortgage-interest payments on second homes. That change would persecute the plutocrats, right? Well, it will not amuse Aspen, Colo., Sun Valley, Idaho, and Jackson Hole, Wyo., for starters. And those states have as many senators as California, New York and Texas -- where, come to think about it, there live many persons who have second homes.
The end of second-home deductibility would alarm lumbermen -- the horny- handed sons of toil who harvest the trees that make the beams and shingles and floors in second homes. And the union members who make the plumbing fixtures may oppose any tax change that would inhibit construction. And so on.
Concerning the three-martini lunch, who will die in the last ditch in defense of current permissive rules on the deductibility of "business" meals? Not fat cats grown fat on too much gin and not enough vermouth. They are too fat to fight. No, the defenders will be the restaurant and hotel workers' unions. And (for starters) the two senators from Louisiana: New Orleans is kept afloat by deductible spending at business conventions and meetings.
Well, at least we can agree about radically restricting the right of state and local governments to issue tax-exempt bonds, right? Such bonds finance construction of public works (schools, highways, airports, hospitals, bridges). There were $83 billion of such bonds issued in 1983. Restrict them and you restrict the wealth-amassing by the wealthy. But you also restrict construction, so you will hear from the construction unions (Democratic) and the contractors (Republican).
So what will happen in this year of budget cutting and tax reforming? This year will be momentous if much happens, or if nothing happens.
If much happens, that will be momentous. If nothing very much happens, we will have established the momentous fact that the modern state has grown weak by growing big -- that it is immobilized by the constituencies it has created through the services it has rendered. By January 1986, we will either have no enlarged sense of the possible, or we will have the knowledge that the modern state has so woven itself into the fabric of society that it cannot move without ripping the fabric, and thus cannot move.