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"P' is for posturing on tax cut bill

If you want a clear example of why the rest of the country looks upon the nation's capital cynically, take the tax bill passed on Thursday. It provides an excellent rationale for all voters who prefer enjoying their vacations or worrying about the drought to thinking about politics.

The important fact is this: The nearly $800-billion in tax cuts over 10 years passed not despite President Clinton's promise to veto it, but because Clinton said he'd never let it become law. No one who backed it had to worry about the consequences.

Indeed, some of the very best arguments against the bill were made by Republicans who voted for it. "Because of the uncertainty of projecting budget surpluses over a 10-year period, and given all the other priorities we face, I am simply not comfortable with an $800-billion tax cut," said Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I. "Cutting taxes is only one of several important priorities toward which our budget surplus should be directed."

Chafee said he voted for the bill to "keep the process moving" but added: "I would prefer a much smaller bill."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also voted for the bill, but here's what he said about it: "This bill is not acceptable to me. Special interests get the biggest tax breaks, and they get them right away. All the American families get are the leftovers."

McCain then listed some of the interests who got a piece of the bill: "Chicken farmers get an immediate tax break. . . . Small seaplane operators don't have to collect ticket taxes, starting immediately. . . . Manufacturers of fishing tackle boxes get an immediate excise tax break. . . . The people who make and sell arrows for hunting fish and game get an immediate cut in their taxes."

As McCain noted, most of the tax breaks that might benefit ordinary taxpayers _ albeit mostly wealthier ones _ are delayed until 2005 or later. Yet because of Senate budget rules, the whole package in effect dies (or "sunsets," as legislators like to say) in 2009.

Remember, as McCain does, that many supporters of the bill have said they're for "flatter" taxes. But all the new loopholes would install the equivalent of Mount Everest, with all its tall and craggy peaks, into the heart of the tax code.

Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt., suggested a day before the final vote that he'd oppose the bill. The GOP leaders got him to vote yes by offering $11-billion in new benefits for low-income housing, child care and working poor people who get the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Most of the concessions Jeffords won are good provisions. But their modest size compared with the bulk of the bill only highlights how little relief it gives low- and middle-income taxpayers. The top 20 percent of American families get 79 percent of its benefits, according to a Treasury Department study.

How does that work out in practice? A couple with two kids earning $50,000 a year would get $265, according to an analysis by Deloitte & Touche. Michael P. Ettlinger, tax policy director for Citizens for Tax Justice, says this analysis underestimates the bill's impact on the wealthiest taxpayers. His group finds that families earning more than $300,000 would average roughly $46,000 in reductions when cuts in capital gains, estate taxes and other provisions are considered.

A handful of Republicans who voted against this bill explained why many of their colleagues who voted for it are glad it won't become law. Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., said most voters know perfectly well this tax cut won't happen.

"The people don't need to be fooled about this," she says. "They want to be realistic and have us start at the beginning with something that can go through, a smaller tax cut, rather than this bloated bill that can never pass."

"If we experience a downturn, these surpluses could easily turn to deficits," said Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del. "The assumptions necessary for a $792-billion tax cut leave no room for the unplanned but almost certain expenses like natural disasters and other emergencies."

"I came to Washington to help reduce deficits that our children and grandchildren will pay for," said Rep. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa. "Caution should be the word of the day."

But the day this tax bill passed was brought to you by the letter "P," as in posturing. Many who voted for it would do well to send Clinton a thank you vote when he kills it. He'll simply be doing what many of them believe he should _ and, in a less partisan Washington, might have done themselves.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

Washington Post Writers Group