At first there was clarity and discipline behind the shaping of the nation's largest tax cut in 20 years. Lobbyists were kept at bay. Businesses were told to wait their turn because other cuts would be coming. This one, the Republicans promised, would focus on individual taxpayers and make good sense. It would simplify the filing process while promoting long-term economic growth through tax savings of some $1,600 a year for the average household.
Then it all went bad. Late last month, during three days of chaotic, last-minute, closed-door negotiations between House and Senate leaders, Washington demonstrated its immense talent for mucking things up. A tax package was rushed through Congress just in time for lawmakers to make the Memorial Day barbecues back home, and what should have been a taxpayer feast looks instead like a botched grilling. Most households will see less than $600 of savings this year, and as for simpler tax returns, well, that's just a laugh. A more confusing tax bill is hard to imagine.
The mess that the President is expected to sign this week is loaded with targeted tax breaks and maddening phase-ins and phase-outs--tax reductions that come and go like a spring afternoon. It contains some last-minute special-interest morsels, including one that may be a precursor to school vouchers. Most of the relief comes at the tail end of the 10-year plan--and the year after that, the whole thing disappears, restoring in 2011 the very same tax laws that were in force last April 15.
Is Bush to blame? Perhaps. But not alone. He may have turned on the Washington meat grinder, but both parties fed it foul flesh. And both sides were so hungry for a bill that neither paid close attention to what the bill was. "Nobody was down there on the Senate floor combing through the details," says a Democratic Senator's chief of staff. Most Senators and House members were clueless about the bill's fine print right up to the vote, even most members of the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee, the bodies charged with steering this kind of legislation.
On the House side, only the ranking Ways and Means members--Republican Representative Bill Thomas and Democrat Charles Rangel--were involved in late-hour haggling. Among the Senators, the conferees included Republicans Charles Grassley, Trent Lott and Don Nickles and Democrats Max Baucus, Tom Daschle, Jay Rockefeller and John Breaux. But for most of the final 48-hour marathon to complete the bill on the Thursday and Friday before Memorial Day, only Grassley, Thomas, Breaux and Baucus were actually in the room.
Rangel, who at one point during negotiations was asked to leave the room because the Republicans wanted to negotiate among themselves out of earshot of a Democrat, calls the bill "a fraud on the American people." He and others charge that the bill underestimates the true cost of the tax cuts by half a trillion dollars and that it is aimed squarely at the richest Americans.
Republicans, of course, take offense at the characterization. "That demagoguery and class-warfare rhetoric is pure nonsense," says Republican whip Nickles. "Low-income taxpayers get immediate relief retroactively. Some people are just throwing arrows and playing class warfare because they do it out of habit, not out of knowledge of the bill."