Storm over withholding still rumbling

Foes of tax withholding on interest and dividends have tried twice within a week to keep the practice from going into effect, and twice they've failed. But if the first battles are lost, the war is not over on Capitol Hill, which has been barraged by the heaviest load of constituent mail on any issue in history.

Congressional leaders and the White House have been able to stave off efforts to attach the repeal to either a jobs and recession relief bill or the social security reform legislation. But more than half of the members of both chambers now cosponsor bills to cancel the withholding plan, due to begin next July.

''I think the repeal will be enacted into law,'' said Sen. John Melcher (D) of Montana this week after he saw his withholding amendment set aside on the Senate floor by a procedural vote.

But first the repeal forces will have to defeat Senate Finance Committee chairman Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, who has dug in his defenses, even while acknowledging the unprecedented mail on the other side.

Senator Dole has repeatedly lashed out at the American Bankers Association and the bankers lobby, which he blames for stirring up opposition by telling banking customers that it is a new tax.

More billions for Treasury

The withholding tax provision is part of a $98 billion revenue bill that passed last year with Senator Dole's leadership. It would withhold 10 percent of interest and dividend income for income taxes, thus making it easier to catch tax evaders who do not report such income. Wages have long been subject to withholding, but until now unearned income has been exempt.

According to the Treasury Department, the provision would bring in $22.7 billion to the US over the next five years because of speeding up payments and forcing better compliance with tax law. Banks, credit unions, and savings institutions, however, would have to foot the bill for computer technology for withholding the funds from their customers. And many customers would lose a portion of compounded interest under the new tax collection system.

While Dole and the White House lambast the bankers for trying to strong-arm Congress, the opposition holds that they are fighting for a ''people's issue.''

''I'm not much influenced by the banking lobby,'' says Senator Melcher, who adds that the bankers from his state come to Washington only once a year. ''I don't think in our state they've circulated all this mail. They can't get people to write that many letters.''

For its part, the American Bankers Association has countered that ''our involvement has been greatly exaggerated by those who wish to create a tactical diversion to avoid the real issue, which is congressional debate of withholding repeal.''

Some on Capitol Hill see the real issue lying between the two opposing sides.

''You get so tired of backing down to the banks,'' Sen. Dave Durenberger (R) of Minnesota, who is siding with Dole, said in a recent interview. ''It galls me'' he said, criticizing banks whose advertisements say ''highest interest rates allowed by law'' when bankers themselves sought the legal ceilings on interest.

A people's issue, or a banker's?

But Senator Durenberger asserts that the withholding debate is not just a bankers' issue. ''The fear is there on the part of the people,'' he said, especially because of the recession. ''What the banks have done is play on that fear.''

''It was an issue created by banks to prevent additional expenditure,'' says a House leadership aide.

Key points in the withholding debate:

Cost to banks. The Treasury Department sets the expense at $600 million to $ 700 million based on an admittedly limited study. Bankers put their cost at $3 billion. However, the US has offered to give the financial institutions use of the withheld funds for 30 days or longer to offset these costs.

Cost to taxpayers. According to Treasury Department figures, a bank customer who invested $1,000 at 9 percent for one year would lose only 50-cents in interest compounding. Moreover, banks would be permitted to withhold the 10 percent for taxes at the end of the year, instead of quarterly.

Opponents charge that withholding costs taxpayers money, discourages savings, and amounts to government intrusion.

Exemptions. Most of the elderly, low-income persons, and savings accounts that accumulate $150 or less in interest annually would not be subject to withholding. Taxpayers would have to file an exemption form that asks for name, address, account number, and social security number for each account.

The opposition charges that the requirement multiplies red tape and that many of the elderly will be deterred by the new form required for every account.

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