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Editor's Letter

On Eve of Its 100th Birthday, Time to Revisit the Federal Income Tax

It's called balancing the equation

Burdened by the growing cost of federal pensions, the lingering cost of war, a sluggish economy and the largest budget deficit in U.S. history, Washington politicians and the public finally agreed: They needed an income tax.* The arguments may sound familiar. An income tax was "simply a means for the redistribution of wealth," powerful senator Nelson Aldrich, R-R.I., charged. No, Rep. William H. Murray, D-Okla., replied, the new tax would "tap the surplus" of wealthy Americans' income "over and above that amount necessary for good living."

Today, interestingly, the facts are much the same. And so is the rhetoric. Now that the campaign is over, isn't it time for some original thinking?

We begin any discussion of taxes shaped by the interests and experiences of older Americans, steeled in the precepts of fairness and frugality and the notion that we should live within our means.

Here, on the eve of the federal income tax's 100th birthday, is our checklist:

See the big picture. Any tax discussion starts with deciding the proper role of government. America is getting older, which affects every aspect of life and government from health care costs and continuing education to transportation and retirement. With the election settled, it is essential that we turn to determining the dimensions and priorities of government, then figuring out what has to be done to pay for them.

Try cooperation. There is a precedent. In 1986, Sen. Bill Bradley and Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, two leading congressional Democrats, and Republican President Ronald Reagan championed a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code that cut rates dramatically, eliminated major loopholes and expanded tax breaks for the poor.

Do the math. In the face of a $1.1 trillion deficit this year, there are plenty of options for a more relevant and efficient source of tax revenue to balance trims in excessive and wasteful spending, though it won't be easy.

Put Congress to work. In 1913 Woodrow Wilson called a special session of Congress on his inauguration day to dramatize the need for action. It worked. With the 16th Amendment already ratified, Congress acted to fundamentally change the way America financed its government: A network of tariffs that for decades had made consumer goods more expensive while protecting the business interests of American moguls was repealed and replaced by a 1 percent income tax for those earning over $3,000. It's time for a sequel.

*That was 100 years ago.

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