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Don't Rock the Boat

May 25, 1986

Realtors are unhappy. There are special sweeteners for the steel, timber and oil industries. Auto dealers are aggrieved. So are folks who open individual retirement accounts. Working couples get a marriage penalty again. And so on . . . .

By any measure, there is something in the Senate Finance Committee's tax-reform plan to displease almost anyone. So the lobbyists for those ectoplasmic "special interests" (which are, in a sense, all of us) are circling for attack on the Senate floor when the tax bill comes up for debate early next month. Their line will be this: If only you'd amend this little section here, we could support the bill.

But the Senate must resist if tax reform is to survive in this session of Congress. Not that the package is perfect. But each loose thread on the hem of the bill runs directly to the heart of the program. Pull on one, and the whole fabric is bound to unravel. The magic of the Senate plan that emerged unexpectedly from the committee on May 7 is that the sum is greater than its parts. The traditional role of the U.S. Senate is to stand back and view issues from afar, from the perspective of the greatest good for the greatest number of Americans, and the health of the national economy as a whole.

From that standpoint, the Senate's duty is clear: Pass the bill intact.

For this Congress, passage of a radical tax-reform program is a little like setting sail on an uncharted sea. No one knows exactly how far it is to the other shore, or what sort of wind and sea conditions will be met en route. The journey requires a good deal of that rare legislative commodity, faith. The peril is that individual members of the crew will endanger the cruise by bickering over who gets the biggest servings at mealtime or is assigned the most trustworthy lifeboat--thus losing sight of the common goal at the end of the journey.

No matter how much the legislation might be amended, there is no way to please everyone. There are always relative winners and losers. For every benefit here, someone has to sacrifice there. But there is no question, given the inequities of the present system, that a final tax measure that is fashioned within the parameters now set by the House plan and the Senate committee bill will benefit most Americans--and most especially the poor.

With approval by the Senate of the bill now before it, both houses will have committed themselves to tax reform this year. In an election year no one will want to be fingered as the fellow who killed tax reform in 1986. The House has a bill that is slightly skewed toward assisting the lower- and middle-income taxpayer and that would maintain a more progressive tax system. The Senate version is slightly more favorable to business and the more affluent. This provides a framework for compromise in a Senate-House conference committee that can come about as close to the ideal as is politically possible.

They key now is for the Senate to keep its eye on the far shore and to pass the committee bill intact.

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