When the House voted to scrap the nation's cumbersome tax code this week, it was performing a symbolic gesture. Few people expect the Senate to do the same, and the bill passed with a margin too slim to override a presidential veto.
But don't underestimate the value of symbolic gestures.The Republican leadership in the House has employed tactics like this before. The Contract With America was a largely symbolic gesture that helped focus the party to take control of Congress in 1994. While parts of it eventually became law, its most important accomplishment was that it set the agenda. The president, who up until then hadn't spoken much about balancing the budget, suddenly made that a priority.
If Thursday's 219-209 vote in favor of scrapping nearly 10,000 pages of thoroughly confusing and insulting tax rules has that effect, then the gesture was well worth the effort. Maybe now the nation can focus on drafting a system that is much more fair and simple - one that wouldn't require nearly 60 million people each year to pay someone to prepare their returns.
Drafting such a plan won't be easy, despite what some think. Proponents of a flat tax system should be cautioned. Any system that doesn't preserve deductions for mortgages and charitable contributions would put many Utah families in danger of paying much more in taxes than they do currently. Fairness needs to be the overriding goal.
But the important thing is to begin work on reform now. The bill set a deadline of 2003 for scrapping the tax code, provided a new system was in place by July 4, 2002. Seems a bit far off. Don't feel badly if you're skeptical of any reform bill that doesn't take effect until several election cycles have passed. Politicians are masters at mandating that someone else fix a problem in the future.
Tax reform has to begin now, and it has to be carried out in a serious and urgent manner. A long line of furious special interests is sure to line the halls when it begins. Lobbyists will use every trick imaginable, trying to paint pictures of gloom and doom if the current system is scrapped.
Real reform will require a large dose of political courage. But, if successful, it would restore a good deal of the nation's faith in its government.