All over America, bankers and their depositors are taking potshots at what looks to them like a Bush administration tax that fails the administration's own "duck test." To them, it looks like a duck, it quacks like a duck, and it's a tax in duck's feathers.
In question is a proposal, offered by Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and defended as "one option" by President Bush, to impose a fee of 25 cents on every $100 deposited into a federally insured savings and loan institution, bank or credit union.The revenue raised would help bail out the government's S&L insurance fund.
"I think it is a terrible idea," Gerald Martel, president of First Federal Savings and Loan of Lewiston, Maine, said Wednesday when the idea first flew.
"I don't have a clear answer on how you solve this problem in an equitable manner," Martel said, "but I don't think applying a tax is an answer."
Not a tax, said Bush, gamely. "I will answer the question with a question. Is (it) a tax when the person pays the fee to go to Yosemite Park, using the park?"
John Sununu, his chief of staff, tried calling it "an adjustment upward of the current premium structure."
Sununu added that it "does not pass the duck test and therefore is not a tax."
The duck analogy arose - on every lip in Washington - because only a week ago Richard Darman, Bush's nominee to be budget director, told senators the president remains opposed to any new taxes and won't try to fool people by playing on words. "I think the burden of that is the duck test - if it looks like a duck, it's a duck," Darman said.
To Marlin Fitzwater, Bush's press spokesman, the idea was not a duck; "what you're looking at today is a trial balloon," he said.
A little later, Fitzwater took that back, circulating through the White House press room, saying, "It was not an intentional trial balloon."
Whatever. Out in America, it laid an egg.
"What I see is a constituency of 240 million people calling their congressmen about it," said William A. Ferguson, chief operating officer at French Market Homestead Federal Savings Association in New Orleans.
"I don't think it would be popular," Ferguson said. "Whether it's right or wrong, whether it's the best alternative or not, I don't think this will gather the popular support to be implemented."
"I would mind a lot," said Amy Davis of Little Rock, Ark. "I'm the kind of person who has a little bit set back in savings, nothing to brag about. And I don't think it's right I should pay for their problems."
"I can't believe they really think this is a solution to the problem," said Norman M. Coulson, president of GlenFed Inc., in Glendale, Calif., parent of one of the nation's top five S&Ls. "One of the problems in our country is our savings rates are not as high as they should be and this is just another impediment."