When Congress in 1986 passed the most sweeping overhaul of the income tax system in 50 years, pundits proclaimed it one of those rare moments when democracy served the general interest.
Scores of special-interest tax breaks were pared away in a process that political scientist Norman Ornstein likens to the cleaning of barnacles from an old ship's hull.But barnacles have a way of coming back.
According to congressional rec-ords, 213 tax bills have been introduced in the Senate since the 1986 tax law was enacted, nearly all of which would restore or add tax breaks in one form or another. House members are no less prolific: 536 tax bills, or more than one per member. Remarkably few of them would raise anyone's taxes.
Although Congress in 1986 got caught up in the enthusiasm for "tax reform," it never really was converted to its central tenet namely, that the tax code should not be used as an instrument of social and economic policy.
"Using a (tax) deduction as a policy mechanism is never going to go away," says Ornstein. "It is not just the whole way of Congress. It is the whole way of American culture: Let's find a way to solve a problem; let's give me a tax deduction."
The list of tax provisions that House and Senate members want to add or restore generates a computer printout that stretches more than 60 feet.
Among the proposals: lower capital-gains rates, deductions for state sales taxes, income averaging for farmers, lower tax rates for children with investment income, tax-deferred individual retirement accounts for everyone, interest deductions on loans used to buy light trucks, and exemptions on certain pensions paid to football coaches.
Most of the break-restoration bills are unlikely to get serious consideration during this era of high budget deficits. Many bills introduced in Congress are merely concessions to constituents, and even their sponsors do not expect them to pass. And even those with serious backing are likely to run afoul of the chairmen of Congress' two tax-writing committees, who say they oppose any major fiddling with the new law.
Still, the plethora of tax-break bills suggests that the close bond between tax breaks and politics was only briefly broken by the Tax Reform Act of 1986.
"I see this as the begining of trying to build for going back to the old law, for the great tax debate of 1989 and 1990," said Rep. Willis D. Gradison, R-Ohio, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee favors tax-exempt savings accounts for housing and education and rival Jesse L. Jackson wants more tax credits for child care. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D), alone among presidential candidates, wants to give the new system a chance for a while, although he also favors making permanent the expiring tax credit for research and development.