George Will

     It is one of seven states without Satan's fingerprint -- an income tax. But it has a sales tax that raises $18.3 billion annually. That tax would raise $26.5 billion were it not for the approximately 440 exemptions that are the reason why only 57 percent of transactions are taxed. Tattooing, body piercing, tanning services and lap dances are not taxed. Neither are ostrich and racehorse feed, although dog and cat feed are taxed. Lawn mowers are taxed but lawn services are not. Pool services are not but chemicals to clean pools are. Charter fishing boat services are not, fishing rods are.

     In the federal tax code, as in Florida's, almost every wrinkle is there because a muscular interest group got it put there. Other wrinkles, just by existing, have summoned into existence interest groups that have learned how to benefit from them and now will die in the last ditch defending them. Which is why radical reform of the code involves picking one or more fights with almost everyone.

     But that is one reason why the fights are worth picking. Tax simplification would be political reform, reducing the influence of the Washington-based lawyer-lobbyist complex that exists to wrinkle the code. Unfortunately, even rhetorical simplifiers are operational complicators. At last summer's Republican convention, Bush described the tax code as ``a complicated mess -- filled with special interest loopholes'' and vowed to ``simplify'' it. Well.

     The Weekly Standard's Andrew Ferguson notes that Bush's acceptance speech also included a promise to make America ``less dependent on foreign sources of energy,'' and to provide ``opportunity zones'' to attract businesses to poor communities. Bush also promised to ``give workers the security of insurance against major illness,'' to encourage the construction of 7 million ``affordable homes'' in 10 years and to make it easier for everyone to go to college. Sure as God made little green apples, these promises would, as Ferguson says, involve adorning the tax code with more exemptions, credits and deferrals.

     In the great -- or so it then seemed -- 1986 turn toward simplification, the reduction of rates was paid for by reducing exemptions and other complexities. However, Congress, having had its fling with simplification, soon reverted to form: Since then the tax code has been amended more than 6,000 times. Such is the tide Mack and his panel must try to turn.


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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