February 10, 2000

February 10, 2000 | Commentary on Taxes

ED021000: Making the U.S. Tax Code Even Worse

The Internal Revenue code is America's national nightmare: Its 17,000 pages of fine print law and regulations have spawned 721 different forms.

The paperwork mailed out each year by the Internal Revenue Service could circle the earth 28 times. Even the "simple" 1040EZ return requires 32 pages of instructions.

Taxpayers squander more than 5.4 billion hours every year in a futile effort to comply with tax laws that have changed more than 6,000 times since 1986. Yet if President Clinton has his way, the tax system will become even more complicated and unfair.

His final budget contains 221 new proposals, including 93 tax increases, 42 "user fees," 27 new credits, five new exclusions, three new deductions and two new marriage penalties, with perhaps a partridge in a pear tree in the fine print.

Who wins from this game? Certainly not the taxpayers. If all of the administration's changes are approved, tax collections over the next five years are estimated to be $10.825 trillion, compared with $10.829 trillion if the tax laws are left unchanged.

In other words, the president is only willing to cut taxes over the next five years by $4.4 billion, an infinitesimal reduction of four- hundredths of 1 percent. While taxpayers get a pittance, politicians and lobbyists come out winners.

Politicians win because they can rake in campaign cash by rewarding friends with new tax preferences. Lobbyists win because they can bill hundreds of dollars for each hour spent getting new loopholes in the tax code or making sure their clients are not affected by the multitude of tax increases the president has proposed.

Indeed, the president's budget is a perfect example of why our tax code has become such a mess. From its beginnings as a simple, two-page form in 1913, the income tax has grown into a monstrosity because politicians have been unable to resist the temptation to use it for political purposes.

No longer are taxes merely the means to raise revenue. They have become the tools politicians use to pursue social engineering, backdoor industrial policy and ham-fisted attempts to steer private behavior with subsidies and penalties.

And what is the result after 87 years of letting politicians and lobbyists run amok? A tax code nobody can understand. When Money magazine sent a hypothetical family's tax return to professional tax-preparers in 1998, they got back 46 different responses, every one of them wrong.

The IRS does even worse. According to a government audit, the tax collection agency gave out nearly 10 million incorrect answers in 1999 to taxpayers who phoned the toll-free hotline. If the president's proposals are approved, these problems will worsen. There will be more tax forms to fill out, requiring taxpayers to spend more time jumping through hoops.

To oversee this added complexity, the president has proposed hiring more IRS agents and giving the agency more money-not a comforting thought with April 15 approaching.

The details are no better. While most Americans favor eliminating the death tax, the administration wants to increase it by $3.6 billion. Many of the administration's proposed tax hikes fall on businesses, a foolish strategy in an increasingly competitive global economy.

Perhaps the most ridiculous proposal is the $3,000 tax the White House wants to place on tobacco companies for every American smoker under 18.

What's next, a tax on beer companies when teen-agers get their older buddies to buy a keg? A tax on McDonald's when overweight consumers buy Big Macs? A tax on parents who feed their kids sugary breakfast cereals?

Why stop there? The president could assign each of us our own personal IRS agent to follow us around. Any time we fail to eat our vegetables, or spend too much time watching "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" or skip our daily exercise, the government can impose a tax.

Enough already. Instead of acquiescing to the president's proposals and making the tax system even more convoluted and corrupt, politicians should use the opportunity of record budget surpluses to replace the current tax code with a simple and fair system like the flat tax.

Daniel Mitchell is the McKenna senior fellow in political economy at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Daniel J. Mitchell, Ph.D. McKenna Senior Fellow in Political Economy

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