Another look at the old tax problem

We must do something about taxes. We enacted this new-style income tax law in 1913 and more than 70 years later many people think we've lost control. Originally it was created for collecting revenue. But the pressure was irresistible to accomplish social and economic objectives by giving tax benefits , exemptions, and bonuses to encourage all sorts of ends. Today there are so many of these - called ''tax expenditures'' by economists - that the tax law is enormously complex. The whole tax code, students say, is longer than the Bible, the Talmud, and the Koran combined.

Something has to be done. Come to the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Room 215, almost any day now and you see how America goes about such things. The Senate Committee on Finance is holding quiet hearings. Probably sometime next year the president, whoever he is (despite what he may or may not have said about taxes in the meantime), will present a sweeping new tax bill to Congress, and if we're fortunate we'll streamline a lot of things that need fixing. The arguments are being hammered out now.

Room 215 is a paneled room as big as a basketball court, with a 40-foot ceiling. A tray, with five tinkling glasses of ice water and a carafe, sits before witnesses; there are more reporters than the guards can handle; and a row of senators sit on a horseshoe dais looking at the witnesses, asking them questions. There's a row of movie cameras set up on one side with operators all looking bored, wishing they were at the Olympics. Instead they are cranking out figures in this dreary place and the number of tripods they have set up is - goodness me - dozens! This accounts for the dazzling spotlights they have stuck in the ceiling, which blind everybody. Everyone is talking ''billions,'' and if there is one thing duller than a billion I don't know what it is.

The federal tax law has become so big and cumbersome, complains Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, that people can't understand it, and in 1981, 40 percent of the taxpayers hired aides to fill out their forms for them. The income tax, Senator Baucus asserts, is riddled with tax exemptions for almost every conceivable action deemed desirable. Reform can't wait, he says.

When Congress enacted the 1913 income tax, Mr. Baucus says, the Ways and Means Committee finished it with a flurry: It hoped ''all good citizens ... will cheerfully support and sustain it.'' Let's write that at the end of the new tax law, he says.

Congress is beginning to hear witnesses, and they represent everybody. For example, William G. Bowen, president of Princeton University, represents university and church associations; he feels the nation must cherish charitable and educational tax deductions.

European nations have the so-called value-added tax (VAT), which is a sales tax added step by step to the production process. The tax is largely self-enforcing, and a 10 percent VAT in the United States might bring in as much as $250 billion a year in new federal revenues. The art of a good tax man, it has been said, is to get the most eggs with the least squawk, and the taxpayers in Europe have accepted VAT with hardly any protest.

A dozen proposals are now floating around Washington. Nearly all are postulated on the belief that taxes must be raised to pay frightening deficits. President Reagan says he has no plans to raise taxes. At the Democratic convention Walter Mondale said, ''Taxes will go up, and anyone who says they won't is not telling the truth.''

Some fear that deception in the tax system is growing. Some estimate the ''underground economy'' at $100 billion in unreported cash transactions. ''Our income tax is too complicated,'' says Jerome Kurtz, former commissioner of internal revenue. Some critics, Mr. Kurtz says, would do away with progressive taxes, by which richer people pay more. He says that the ''perceived fairness of progressive tax rates is too much a part of our political and social structure to be abandoned.''

So the 1984 tax debate goes on. America's income tax system has rested for 70 years on a basis of voluntary computation; if the feeling of unfairness spreads, a new look at the whole matter may be necessary.

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