The phony tax-cut war

This was supposed to be the summer of the great tax war. The Republicans planned to use the summer recess to whip up support for the nearly $800 billion tax-cutting bill passed by Congress. President Clinton has been all over the country warning that, as soon after Labor Day as the bill comes to him, he will veto it. Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott have rejoined that Mr. Clinton has often changed his mind in the past, and may do so again if there is enough public pressure.

But there isn't much public pressure. The public seems singularly unmoved by the constant repetition of tired arguments - from the administration that a tax cut so big will hurt the economy, and from the Republicans that the taxpayers should get back from projected surpluses some of the money that is rightfully theirs.

The tax war begins to look like a phony war. The Republicans know the bill isn't going anywhere. Indeed, if it were going somewhere, they might have second thoughts about some of its provisions.

Even the Republican front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, has been tinkering with a more "compassionate" version of the tax bill, less tilted toward the rich.

It was Republican Rep. Connie Morella of Maryland who let it be known that many colleagues voted for the bill, glad that it would not become law. By voting for a bill destined to die, they could get credit with special interests like chicken farmers, Maine sawmills, Vermont maple syrup producers, South Carolina wood-lot owners and small seaplane owners without being taken to task by the rest of America for a sellout to the lobbies.

Sen. John McCain, having announced that he opposed the bill because "special interests get the biggest breaks [and] American families get the leftovers," nevertheless voted for it. His strange explanation was that he was just trying to get Clinton to address the tax issue. What the usually forthright Mr. McCain did not say was that, as a presidential candidate, he could not afford to break with his party on its biggest issue.

So the phony war goes on. Republicans wage their battle for a doomed bill, hoping that the voters will reward them next year for having tried. It is not clear how much reward they will get for a bill that gives almost 80 percent of its benefits to the richest 20 percent of Americans.

And when, Clinton vetoes the measure, as he almost surely will, I imagine some of its supporters will breathe sighs of relief.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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