An Agenda For Taxpayers

FOR NEARLY 30 YEARS, the National Taxpayers Union has been a leader in the effort to to lower the aggregate tax burden on the American public. We also have been on the forefront of the drive to overhaul our complex and meddlesome income tax code.

Some Americans think that now that Congress and the President have agreed on a deal to “balance” the budget, Americans can turn their attention from tax and fiscal issues. Nothing could be further from the truth. As we at NTU look to 1998, we see five key areas where we need action.

First, there is the disturbing possibility that the budget won’t actully balance. Many of the hard choices have been left until after the turn of the century, and if history is any guide, promises of balance somewhere down the road are usually meaningless. NTU will be pushing to make sure that promises made will be promises kept.

Second, we think the projected balance is achieved at a level of taxing and spending that is far too high. We will thus be working hard in the coming years for much deeper cuts in taxing and spending. One of our campaigns, for complete elimination of capital gains taxes, is already underway. In 1998, NTU will have a key part in efforts to eliminate more agencies and hopefully at least one entire cabinet department.

Third, we think it is vital to put Congress and the President under constitutional constraints. Political courage from our leaders may be important, but only the Constitution can provide ongoing, permanent assurance that federal taxing, spending and deficits won’t spin out of control. We will continue our efforts to enact a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution as well as an amendment requiring a super-majority vote to raise taxes.

Fourth, NTU has been a national leader in educating the public about the coming crises in federal entitlement programs. Perhaps the greatest challenge the country faces in the coming century is the long-term imbalances that exist in some major entitlement programs. Of course, as is often the case, crisis brings opportunity for change and conservatives can use the need for change to reform these programs so they work better for recipients and taxpayers. The underlying principle in the reform of both Medicare and Social Security must be use of market mechanisms, such as those contained in our research affiliate’s National Thrift Plan.

Fifth, as the recent hearings on the IRS all too clearly showed, it is time for a fundamental change in thetax system. While there is still a dispute over what exactly the final form of any new tax system will be, a consensus has developed around several key principles. The system should have one low flat rate, relieve the tax burden on productive activity, respect American traditions of privacy and civil rights, and be far simpler for taxpayers than what exists today. Conservatives need to build outward from that consensus.

NTU’s lobbying efforts have advanced and will continue to advance these causes. This work has been complemented by the outstanding studies and analyses produced by our research affiliate, the National Taxpayers Union Foundation. The two cornerstones of the Foundation’s work are BillTally and VoteTally. BillTally tracks all legislation introduced in Congress and cross-indexes the costs of this legislation with information on sponsorship.

We thus arrive at a “legislative agenda” for each Member of Congress—a figure which answers the question, “how much would federal spending change if all legislation supported by this Member were enacted?” By providing information on the sponsorship activities of Members, BillTally has dramatically curtailed incentives to propose spending hikes and we have seen a sharp change in the ratio of spending increase proposals to spending decrease proposals over the past six years.

In 1994, NTUF developed VoteTally, a software system that cross-indexes the spending at stake in each floor vote with voting records to tally the cumulative net cost of each Member’s votes. It is the only accurate measure of the net changes in spending supported by each Member of Congress during a two-year legislative session. The ensuing reports serve both as management information for lawmakers and public policy information for journalists and citizens. As with BillTally, the incentives created through the public availability of this information have fundamentally changed the Congressional fiscal culture.

The NTU Foundation also has played a leading role in entitlement reform. Along with the aforementioned National Thrift Plan, our Chartbook on Entitlements and the Aging of America and other studies have played an important role in heightening awareness of the problems we will face in the 21st century. We hope to expand our Foundation’s research in a number of directions in 1998, including economic growth and tax reform.

The challenges the United States faces are tremendous. Government at the close of the 20th century is far too large, constricting both freedom and economic growth. The long-term imbalances the country faces make it imperative that changes are enacted sooner rather than later. NTU and NTUF Foundation will help serve as the catalysts for these changes.

Mr. Berthoud is the President of the National Taxpayers Union and the National Taxpayers Union Foundation.