George Will

WASHINGTON -- Asked when he was near death to name things he regretted not doing, Andrew Jackson said: ``I didn't shoot Henry Clay, and I didn't hang John C. Calhoun.'' President Bush, who seems determined to leave office with nothing undone -- except, maybe, horsewhipping Harry Reid -- vows to transform not only Social Security but the hydra-headed tax code.

     He chose wisely when he asked former Sen. Connie Mack, a Florida Republican, to chair the Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform that will make recommendations by July 31. While in the Senate, Mack served on the Finance and Joint Economic committees -- and he has lived with Florida's baroque sales tax.

     The executive order establishing the panel lists three objectives for tax reform. The third is to promote economic growth. The second is to achieve fairness. The objective listed first, however, is to simplify the code to reduce compliance costs -- including wear and tear on taxpayers' patience. Woodrow Wilson, with his obnoxious penchant for drenching everything with moralism, said paying taxes is a ``glorious privilege.'' Perhaps. But simplicity might make the privilege even more glorious and also might, Mack thinks, get the public interested in reform.

     The absence of public clamor for tax reform is partly explained by the fact that federal tax revenues as a percentage of GDP are at the lowest level -- 16.2 percent -- since 1959. Perhaps the promise of simplicity -- a code ``easy to understand,'' as the president said Wednesday in his State of the Union address -- can stir the interest of taxpayers. Campaign finance laws are now such a mare's nest of ill or undefined terms that no candidate can be confident that he or she is not breaking the law. The tax code, too, is like that for many of the 87 percent of tax filers -- 114 million of them -- who do not use the short form. Furthermore, it is offensive that performing the civic duty of paying taxes is so daunting that the percentage of people relying on professional help to perform it is at an all-time high.

     Mack, who served three terms in the House and two in the Senate, understands the political class' metabolic urge to use tax codes to implement social policies and dispense of favors. Consider Mack's Florida.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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