Lincoln * Institute

Colin A. Hanna

Colin A. Hanna

Let Freedom Ring, USA


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Let Freedom Ring

Sunset the U.S. Tax Code

by Colin Hanna

After Tuesday's midterm elections putting Republicans in majority control of the United States Senate and expanding the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, there's been a lot of speculation about what might be legislatively possible — and in particular, what might stand a chance of getting President Obama to sign it. It may still be a perfectly good idea to force the President's hand to veto certain bills that would never have been even brought to a vote if Harry Reid were still Senate Majority Leader, such as full and partial repeal bills for ObamaCare, but if Republicans want to earn the support and respect of the American public at large, they need to do more than pass bills that the President will veto. They need to engage in a kind of big-picture creative thinking that we haven't seen since the days of Ronald Reagan. The one big agenda item that the President and the Republican leaders have both mentioned in the days after the election is reforming the tax code. I want to suggest an even larger, yet simpler, legislative agenda item: sunset the entire tax code on January 1, 2020.

Why should we scrap the existing tax code? First, it is ridiculously complex. The reference "bible" used by many practitioners to understand the code and its application is the version from legal publisher Commerce Clearing House. It's 73,954 pages in all. The pure code itself in small print from the Government Printing Office is a "mere" 2,652 pages. No one can really understand all of it.

Second, there's wide public support. A stunning 93% of the respondents in a 2012 Gallup survey of national priorities consider it "important" to "simplify the tax code to lower rates and eliminate deductions and loopholes."

Finally, it's politically viable: another survey this year revealed that over 76 percent of voters will be more likely to favor a candidate who supports comprehensive tax reform.

One effort in the overall direction of tax reform that has caught fire recently is the movement to abolish the IRS. You may have seen "Abolish the IRS" bumper stickers. There are 20 different variations available online.

It obviously resonates with the public, but it cannot be described as strictly feasible, or as a serious proposal. Some kind of tax collection agency will be required even under the most radical simplification.

Yet as wide as the support for abolishing the agency is, the support for some system of taxation to replace the current tax code is bitterly divided between flat tax and consumption tax proponents. The special interest lobbies will defend their own turfs like cornered rats, so in the absence of consensus, any effort towards true tax simplification is bound to bog down and most likely result in a series of minor tweaks that could actually result in making the whole code even more complex.

So here's an alternative proposal: Simply "sunset" (or legislatively terminate) the tax code itself, in full, at some date certain, far enough in the future to permit the creation of its replacement. Public and political support for this interim proposal should be huge. Setting such a date will create an urgency to get it done on time, but not a crisis. When? Why not January 1, 2020? It's far enough into the future to quell any arguments that it would create immediate chaos, and it has the added symbolic value of being "visionary," "clear sighted" and "focused" because it plays on the pun of 20/20 vision.

Politically, it should unite conservatives and libertarians, and even some progressives, while putting defenders of the current system in the unenviable position of trying to speak in favor of a system that not even its most experienced practitioners truly understands. In short, I believe that this proposal can advance the tax reform agenda faster than anything else yet presented. Sunsetting the tax code is the necessary precondition to meaningful tax reform.

(Colin Hanna is President of Let Freedom Ring, USA.)