Credit a staunch Republican legislator, Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, with drawing attention to a means toward federal solvency without balancing the budget on the backs of the poor. She has introduced a bill to place a statutory limit on tax breaks for corporations and individuals. It would be a step in the direction of controlling the ''tax expenditures'' - revenue losses - that now customarily favor the relatively well off and cost the government some $266 billion a year.
No one supposes that this budgetary drain, more than enough to offset even the new inflated military budget, could be totally eliminated. Moreover, cuts in the various credits, exemptions, loopholes, and other tax expenditures would not produce exactly equivalent revenue. It could be more or less depending upon the effect on taxpayers' brackets and their financial decisions. For example, the Treasury has estimated that denying $81.8 billion in itemized deductions would result in a revenue gain of only $62.3 billion.
Only! That would just about pay for the Department of Health and Human Services, a dozen Environmental Protection Agencies, or forty Endowments for the Arts. Obviously, there could be a bonanza in even making a start on tax expenditures, as budget director Stockman said he had intended to do before the budget caved in to politicking.
Of course, every time the question is raised, someone denounces a supposed implication that the government is entitled to all of everybody's money - and that whatever taxpayers are allowed to keep becomes a ''revenue loss.'' Not so. It is simply that by giving tax breaks for certain purposes, worthy or unworthy, the government places extra revenue burdens on those who do not get the breaks. And it risks letting tax expenditures for outworn or misguided purposes go on and on, rather than testing a tax subsidy's purpose each year as Congress would have to do if the same goal were to be sought through appropriated funds.
Senator Kassebaum's idea of limiting the expenditures could force reexamination of such purposes. But it would be unfortunate if an upper limit on tax expenditures were to become the excuse for a floor instead of a ceiling. Whether or not Congress decides to set a limit, it ought to ensure regular review of tax expenditures, weighing their goals as well as the budgetary methods of attaining them.
The Kassebaum bill, and its House twin introduced by Democratic Congressman Dan Glickman, would address this question, too. It would require that each tax expenditure be considered by the respective authorizing committee. That is, deductions for home insulation would go to the Energy Committee to be evaluated in relation to the whole energy picture and compared with the alternative of direct appropriations for the same goal.
Meanwhile, think of this. If the bill were now in effect, $70 billion would be cut from present tax expenditures. This would bring them within the proposed limit of 30 percent of federal revenue. They are now 38 percent - suddenly a hot topic in a Washington with deficits of $100 billion or more on the horizon.