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Democrats didn't fret about tax fairness in '80s

WASHINGTON _ One of the gaudier congressional gasbags, Democrat Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee and a member of Congress for 31 years, honked his victory horn after House passage of its "soak the rich" tax package: "Today equity and fairness make a comeback."

Rostenkowski rejoiced, as if welcoming home old friends who'd been pushed off the property by a previous owner. Spoken like a true Democrat. And at least Rostenkowski seemed to recognize tax equity and fairness after all these years.

But if equity and fairness had come back _ temporarily _ they must have been away somewhere. In fact, Rostenkowski's greeting came from a congressman of immense influence on taxes and a man bearing considerable responsibility for the long disappearance of those twin strangers.

Helpfully, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has released a report on the whereabouts of tax equity and fairness during the last 10 years. It coincides with the time of Rostenkowski's rule over Ways and Means.

And it was while supply-side Reaganomics headed the nation to its deficit disaster and while Rostenkowski helped bolster congressional determination to boost its own pay, all the time reigning as Congress' champion freeloading guest of rich lobbyists who care deeply about tax matters.

Boiled down, the CBO report had this to say about tax equity and fairness in the years Ronald Reagan and then George Bush resided at the White House, the same years as Rostenkowski's chairmanship at Ways and Means:

Pretax income of the wealthiest Americans rose 45 percent and their share of federal income taxes dropped by 10 percent. Income for the poorest Americans dropped by 9 percent and their share of the tax burden rose by 27 percent.

In all that time Democrats were in firm control of the House and for most of the time they controlled the Senate. Democrats, the same Democrats who joined Rostenkowski in blowing kisses to the "comeback" of tax equity and fairness, are still in charge of the legislative agenda.

Some Democrats, including Rostenkowski, initially protested the foolishness of the Reagan dogma that taxes should be cut sharply, defense spending should rise mightily and _ presto _ federal revenues would overtake federal debt.

But most Democrats, including Rostenkowski, retreated to the wisdom of long-term Democratic incumbency _ that it was politically suicidal to oppose Reagan on taxes.

In that decade of Democratic accommodation with a clearly approaching economic earthquake, the majority party in Congress _ and most especially leaders like Rostenkowski _ abandoned its own responsibilities and its history.

To oppose the screwball Reaganomics of illusory good times paid for by monumental borrowing might have threatened their own re-elections. They chose not to oppose.

That's when tax equity and fairness disappeared and, chances are, they'll disappear again whenever the current congressional-White House fuss is settled.

To their totally unconscious credit, the Democrats have helped demolish a fiction that the "experience and expertise" of congressional long-termers are central to American good government.

The fiction-peddlers warn that a limitation on congressional terms, abandonment of all that "experience and expertise," would be harmful.

Yes, and it was Rostenkowski's experience and expertise _ 31 years in Congress, 10 years as chairman of Ways and Means _ that presided over tax issues all the years while the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.

And it was Rostenkowski and all those other Democrats married to congressional incumbency who long ago kissed tax equity and fairness goodbye, just so they could stay in office and keep ahold of congressional majority rule.

Leonard E. Larsen writes commentaries twice weekly for Scripps Howard News Service.