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Is it time for a flat tax?

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted August 16, 2004

Dennis Hastert, (R-IL), once a high school athletic coach, was Chief Deputy Whip to Tom Delay, (R-TX) when the Republicans took control of the Congress a decade ago. As such, he had to help DeLay round up votes. He got to be very good at it. He managed to persuade his colleagues to go along with many of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich's positions, which wasn't easy.

Gingrich's various actions, which enraged conservatives, caused him to be unviable after the 1998 elections. For starters, Gingrich boldly predicted at least a 30-seat win in '98. Instead, Republicans lost five seats. That meant they had a margin of only five seats. Rep. Bob Livingston, (R-LA) was set to become Speaker after Gingrich.

Instead, in the post-election session, during which leadership elections took place, Livingston announced that he was stepping down because of infidelity in his marriage. He did so as Congress took up the impeachment issue which involved the infidelity of the President. The media was stunned. Would Dick Armey, (R-TX) become Speaker? Armey had barely survived a challenge to his post as Majority Leader from back-bencher Rep. Steve Largent, (R-OK). What about DeLay? DeLay knew he was a lightening rod. He could have won the race as Speaker if he had run. However, with the sort of margin Republicans were about to have in the next Congress, DeLay knew he would be the issue with every matter Congress took up.

On that highly charged morning, the name of Dennis Hastert surfaced as a candidate for Speaker. It is not clear who suggested him. Newt Gingrich said he did. Tom DeLay said he did. Maybe they both did. Regardless, within minutes self-effacing Dennis Hastert of Illinois was Speaker-elect.

Hastert was nearly the opposite of Gingrich. Gingrich was the brilliant strategist. (Gingrich was largely responsible for Republicans gaining the majority as well as welfare reform passing into law.) Hastert was a tactician. Gingrich would make bombastic statements from which he would later retreat. Hastert stayed away from flamboyant comments and what he said he stuck with. Gingrich would over-promise and under-perform. Hastert would under-promise and over-perform.

In the three Congresses during which Hastert has been Speaker, he has a remarkable record of being able to pass almost all of the conservative agenda. Only on some environmental issues and on McCain-Feingold, the so-called campaign reform law, did a coalition of liberal Republicans and all but a handful of Democrats override Hastert.

The record Hastert has compiled would be the envy of Speaker Joseph William Martin, Jr., (R-MA), the only other Republican in modern times to preside over a Republican Congress. Like Gingrich, he had two terms but not consecutive. He also had a slim margin, but he could not get nearly the agenda through the House that Hastert has pushed. The reason you hear little about Hastert's accomplishments is because almost every victory he achieves ends up in the scrap heap of a Senate filibuster or inaction by Senate Committees.

Barring a Kerry blowout in November, Hastert is almost certain to be Speaker a fourth time. Some speculate it will be his last term, although the Speaker is not term-limited the way some of the other leadership positions are.

In any case, Hastert has a new book out. (Who doesn't?) In it, in addition to telling his life story, the Speaker says he wants to make the abolition of the IRS a priority. He would do that by the imposition of either a national sales tax or a Value Added Tax (VAT) such as in European countries.

I fear a VAT tax because it is silent and can be increased without taxpayers knowing how much or where. Several different transactions are subject to the VAT and it has been blamed for Europe's economic stagnation.

A national sales tax would be fine with me, but that means we would have to amend the Constitution to get rid of the income tax. We just don't seem to be able to amend the Constitution for any reason in recent times. I wonder if we could in this instance. Unless we did that, we surely would end up with both an income tax and a national sales tax. That might be good for the government coffers, but it would be a nightmare for consumers.

Why not try a flat tax...a flat tax with deductions for only mortgages and charities. If everything else were eliminated, and I mean every other deduction, the IRS would not have nearly the power it does now. The reason it has all its power is due to the incredibly complicated tax code.

In addition, The Wall Street Journal recently reminded us that prior to 1940, Americans paid all of their federal taxes at one time. April 15th. That was a black day for lots of taxpayers, especially those who didn't put aside money for taxes during the year. Right now, most taxpayers have no real idea what they fork over to the federal government every paycheck. They look only at their net income. Perhaps if they own stocks and bonds and have lots of deductions they may have some idea of the cost of taxation come April 15th. However, there is nothing so bracing as having to write a check for the staggering amount otherwise taken out your pay each year, especially if you are in an upper bracket.

My father told me that it was really traumatic for people to make that once-a-year payment. He thought it was great and was angry with Congress for changing the law and permitting withholding.

The combination of a real flat tax and returning to the once-a-year payment system would certainly dilute the power of the IRS. Again, if we could amend the Constitution, then I would be in favor of a national sales tax. If the Speaker has a game plan to make that happen, sign me up. If not, I hope he will consider my suggested alternative: a flat tax with deductions for only mortgages and charities.

Making this issue a priority would excite the country. Then whichever Administration we have in January will have to face the music!

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

Other related stories: (Open in a new window)

  • One single, simple tax by Bruce Walker (December 25, 2000)
    Bruce Walker says there are any number of solid reasons for supporting a single tax system
  • Thinking about tax reform by Rod D. Martin (November 22, 1999)
    Rod D. Martin says a flat tax promotes everything that the things voters want and would help them take back something they lost a long time ago
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