WASHINGTON — APRIL 15 is coming. How do you feel about federal taxes? Not good, probably - and that's a mood that congressional Republicans are planning to use to their advantage.
Next Monday, while millions of Americans are staring morosely at their Form 1040, the House plans to consider a constitutional amendment that would put unprecedented restrictions on Uncle Sam's revenue-raising ability.
If ratified by the states, the Tax Limitation Amendment would require that any bill raising taxes must pass the House and Senate by a "supermajority" two-thirds vote.
To its GOP backers, this change would be an important check on Washington's appetite. To many Democrats, on the other hand, it would be unnecessary meddling with the intentions of the Founding Fathers.
The 104th Congress has already considered four amendments to the Constitution, complained Rep. David Skaggs (D) of Colorado on the House floor last week. In the previous 20 years, members considered a total of only nine.
"This Congress is really treating the Constitution of the United States as if it were just a working document in draft form," said Mr. Skaggs.
By bringing up the Tax Limitation Amendment on a day when taxes are foremost in many Americans' minds, the GOP leadership hopes to garner a spate of publicity and perhaps a boost in its popularity with House members.
Support for the measure among representatives already appears to be widespread, though chances for passage - and eventual state ratification - remain uncertain.
Limiting the federal government's ability to raise taxes has been a general GOP goal at least since the days of President Reagan. By constraining the government's resources, goes the theory of proponents, its size can be controlled. Thus firebrand House freshmen who consider balancing the federal budget their top priority are also eager for the Tax Limitation Amendment.
Eleven states already have similar restrictions on the books, note proponents. Nor would the new supermajority requirement be an unbreakable straitjacket, they point out - the Tax Limitation Amendment heading for the House floor could be waived by a simple majority vote in both chambers in times of military emergency.
The amendment wouldn't automatically block a tax code overhaul, such as a Steve Forbes flat tax. Furthermore, the amendment's requirements have already been softened once. The constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget, which passed the House last January, originally contained a "supermajority" provision requiring a three-fifths vote to raise taxes. The provision was pulled before final House consideration of the balanced budget measure, however, as a few of the veteran Republicans felt it was too restrictive.
At the time this move angered a number of GOP freshmen. The April 15 vote on a two-thirds vote Tax Limitation Amendment is thus partly a gesture by the Republican leadership to mollify its restive rank-and-file.
Overall, the Tax Limitation Amendment would put an end to a roiling that has seen more than 4,000 major tax code changes in the past decade, claim its backers. It would require that "there be sufficient consensus and partisan support around the country before taxes will be raised again," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona last week.
Democrats, on the other hand, hit the amendment as a political stunt - and dangerous besides.
It's not that they just want to raise taxes, claim critics. They say that instead they just wish to protect the federal government's prerogatives, in case of unforeseen emergency. The Founding Fathers struggled with this very issue at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, they say, and decided not to require a supermajority vote of states for revenue-raising.
Republicans have rushed the measure through the House, with little in the way of committee hearings or debate, according to Democrats. Furthermore, the GOP doesn't really believe in the supermajority principle, say critics. When Republicans took over the House in 1994 they passed a chamber rule that requires a three-fifths approval of all tax increases. Yet the GOP leadership has sidestepped this measure, three times simply waiving the requirement for bills that arguably contained small tax increases.