theatre & politics case study: Tax Day protest/longer article FWD

Tom Boland (
Thu, 16 Apr 1998 19:20:57 -0700 (PDT)
FWD page A01 of the Boston Globe 04/16/98


  By Aaron Zitner, Globe Staff, 04/16/98

WASHINGTON - They dumped it in Boston Harbor. They held a mock funeral for
it in Baltimore, and denounced it during a ''Day of Outrage'' across from
the White House. They celebrated the man who tried to cut it in half with a
chainsaw only a few days ago.

The US tax code - the law nobody loves - played the villain yesterday as
Republicans and anti-tax groups staged bits of Tax Day political theater
across the country. These groups want lower taxes, fewer taxes, or a
national sales tax or ''flat tax'' to replace the current system, and they
sensed a ready audience in a nation struggling to meet the annual April 15
filing deadline for income taxes.

But the dramas may have played to an indifferent crowd. While Republicans
have spent two years talking up the need for a simpler tax code and for a
more ''taxpayer-friendly'' Internal Revenue Service, several polls show
Americans are surprisingly sedate about taxes and the tax collector.

And in Congress, those polls may have muted the fever raging only a few
months ago for replacing the tax code. Congressional staffers say lawmakers
may approve a tax-cut package this year, but nobody is predicting any
wholesale change in the tax code.

Republicans are wary because no public consensus has developed to scrap the
current mix of income, corporate, death and other taxes in favor of
something different and presumably simpler - such as a national sales tax
or a ''flat'' levy that charges everyone the same tax rate.

Republicans should be cautious with big issues like scrapping the whole
code, ''because we don't want this to be too big or too fast or too
scary,'' said Peter Roff, political director of GOPAC, the Republican
political action committee. ''If a candidate asked me for advice on the
whole issue of tax reform broadly, I'd say that lower taxes and smaller
government are the cornerstone of the Republican Party,'' Roff said. ''But
this doesn't mean you have to endorse the flat tax over the sales tax.''

One dramatic gesture pending in Congress - a bill that would eliminate the
current tax code by 2002 without naming a specific replacement - may be
toned down. After talking up the bill in recent months, House leaders are
now considering a plan to vote on it as a nonbinding resolution rather than
an iron-clad law.

Polls show people are not clamoring for a tax overhaul, and they are not
any angrier than usual about taxes, said Karlyn Bowman, a public-opinion
specialist at the American Enterprise Institute.

People always complain about taxes, just as they gripe about the cost of
movie tickets and automobiles, Bowman said. But in a March 1997 Gallup
poll, 58 percent of people surveyed said taxes were too high, down from 64
percent in April 1996 and 66 percent in December 1994.

Americans do not even seem upset with the IRS, even after high-profile
Senate hearings last year that highlighted cases where the IRS abused

But a survey released yesterday by Louis Harris & Associates suggested that
only 6 percent of the public believes it has been treated unfairly by the
IRS. The pollsters arrived at that number by finding 28 percent of people
have had any direct contact at all with the IRS, and 21 percent of those
people believe they were treated unfairly. The rest thought they had been
treated fairly.

''To judge by the media coverage and political rhetoric over the last year,
you would think that the IRS is a rogue agency which is out of control,''
said Humphrey Taylor, chairman of the polling firm. ''In fact, the great
majority of the people who have any contact with the nation's
tax-collecting agency report that IRS personnel treated them fairly and
with courtesy.''

Bowman said people are not naming tax reform as a top concern. By contrast,
she said, media attention to the Clinton health-care plan in 1994 prompted
people to name health care a top concern.

''I don't see the evidence that taxes is ready to move as a political issue
now,'' Bowman said. The high theatrics that groups tried yesterday, she
said, may help raise the profile of the issue.

Yesterday one group, Americans for Fair Taxation, illustrated its desire to
''bury'' the tax code by staging a funeral procession - complete with a
coffin and musicians playing a dirge - in front of an IRS office in
Baltimore. The group is promoting a plan to replace the income, capital
gains, Social Security and other taxes with a 23 percent national sales tax
on services and new goods.

At Lafayette Park, across from the White House, a coalition of groups held
a ''Taxpayer Day of Outrage,'' featuring the president of Americans for Tax
Reform as one of the speakers.

Some politicians have taken on the tax code with stunts - and the tax code
has won.

Late last month, Representative Phil English, a Republican from
Pennsylvania, held a news conference in Erie, Pa., to highlight his plan to
scrap the tax system. Placing the massive tax code on a piece of plywood,
English tried to cut it in half with a chainsaw. But according to news
accounts, he simply nicked it again and again, and he finally gave up.

In Boston yesterday, House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas and
Representative Billy Tauzin, a Republican from Louisiana, tried to replay
the Boston Tea Party as a protest against the tax code. But they were
forced to share the stage with a group of protesters.

The congressmen had put the tax code in a box marked ''tea'' and dumped it
in the harbor, when two protesters floated by in a dinghy labeled the
''Working Family Life Raft.''

''Your tax will sink the working family,'' shouted the two demonstrators,
Chris Hartman and Kristin Barreli of the Boston-based group United for a
Fair Economy. Their dinghy then overturned, tipping the protesters and a
plastic baby into the water.

''Flatten the poor, sink the poor with your flat tax,'' yelled protesters
standing near the congressmen. Others later surrounded their car, waving
signs that said, ''Rich People's  Liberation Front.''

The congressmen appeared to be have been taken by surprise. ''Is their
message they want to keep the code?'' Armey asked reporters. ''I think they
would find themselves in a significant minority.''


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