Commentary Magazine


Topic: personal income tax law

The Global Reform Dodge

The original personal income tax law, passed in 1913, was only 14 pages long. Even the income tax law of 1942, which changed the tax from one on the affluent to include the middle class as well (and began withholding), was only 208 pages long. But the ObamaCare bill was over 2,400 pages, and the financial reform bill now working its way through Congress is about 1,400 pages long, at least at the moment.

The world is a more complicated place these days, but why are major congressional bills turning into such unreadable behemoths of mind-numbing legalese?

One reason, I cynically suspect, is precisely to make them unreadable. Nancy Pelosi’s now-famous remark that Congress would have to pass the health-care bill before people could know what was in it was more true than she realized.  The political elite would rather work in the dark and is confident that the Washington press corps won’t go to the trouble of actually reading a bill that’s longer than War and Peace (and a lot less entertaining). As a political public-relations man once told me, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the work ethic of the average reporter.”

But there are two other reasons. One is that a vast bill makes it easier to sneak in clauses that go unnoticed until they are law. If the best place to hide a book is in a library, then the best way to hide a favor for a contributor or a quiet little power grab is in a bill 2,000 pages long. The Washington Post recently reported that the financial reform bill would significantly increase the power of the Federal Trade Commission to regulate the Internet, something that has nothing to do with financial reform.

The second reason is Washington’s increasing fascination with global reform rather than piecemeal reform. Only touchdowns, it seems, are now allowed in the game of political football; moving the ball down the field just won’t do.  The health-care debate would have been a lot shorter and a lot less politically divisive had both sides simply agreed to enact those reforms that a substantial majority of each house agreed with — such as of insurance abuses — and then saw what else was needed. Regulating derivatives would be a piece of cake if it were not tied to “financial reform” in general.

And insisting on a global solution also makes it much easier to appear to favor reform while assuring that nothing actually gets reformed. Everyone supposedly agrees that the borders should be secured to prevent illegal immigration. The problem has been obvious for two decades and more. But by tying border security to the political hot potato of immigration reform in general, nothing is done and the possibility of offending the increasingly important Hispanic vote is avoided.

Roscoe Conkling, senator and Republican political boss of New York State in the 1870s and 1880s, once remarked that “when Dr. Johnson said that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,’ he was obviously unaware of the possibilities inherent in the word ‘reform.’”

The original personal income tax law, passed in 1913, was only 14 pages long. Even the income tax law of 1942, which changed the tax from one on the affluent to include the middle class as well (and began withholding), was only 208 pages long. But the ObamaCare bill was over 2,400 pages, and the financial reform bill now working its way through Congress is about 1,400 pages long, at least at the moment.

The world is a more complicated place these days, but why are major congressional bills turning into such unreadable behemoths of mind-numbing legalese?

One reason, I cynically suspect, is precisely to make them unreadable. Nancy Pelosi’s now-famous remark that Congress would have to pass the health-care bill before people could know what was in it was more true than she realized.  The political elite would rather work in the dark and is confident that the Washington press corps won’t go to the trouble of actually reading a bill that’s longer than War and Peace (and a lot less entertaining). As a political public-relations man once told me, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the work ethic of the average reporter.”

But there are two other reasons. One is that a vast bill makes it easier to sneak in clauses that go unnoticed until they are law. If the best place to hide a book is in a library, then the best way to hide a favor for a contributor or a quiet little power grab is in a bill 2,000 pages long. The Washington Post recently reported that the financial reform bill would significantly increase the power of the Federal Trade Commission to regulate the Internet, something that has nothing to do with financial reform.

The second reason is Washington’s increasing fascination with global reform rather than piecemeal reform. Only touchdowns, it seems, are now allowed in the game of political football; moving the ball down the field just won’t do.  The health-care debate would have been a lot shorter and a lot less politically divisive had both sides simply agreed to enact those reforms that a substantial majority of each house agreed with — such as of insurance abuses — and then saw what else was needed. Regulating derivatives would be a piece of cake if it were not tied to “financial reform” in general.

And insisting on a global solution also makes it much easier to appear to favor reform while assuring that nothing actually gets reformed. Everyone supposedly agrees that the borders should be secured to prevent illegal immigration. The problem has been obvious for two decades and more. But by tying border security to the political hot potato of immigration reform in general, nothing is done and the possibility of offending the increasingly important Hispanic vote is avoided.

Roscoe Conkling, senator and Republican political boss of New York State in the 1870s and 1880s, once remarked that “when Dr. Johnson said that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,’ he was obviously unaware of the possibilities inherent in the word ‘reform.’”

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