The president's convoluted tax cut. Plus: White House revives vandal scandal while Bush twins hear from dad at Camp David.

By Salon Staff

Published June 4, 2001 9:36AM (EDT)

Rant: Code of confusion

Once upon a time, conservatives hell-bent on tax cuts embraced the flat tax. The concept was repugnant to liberals who view the idea of taxing rich and poor at the same rate as regressive; but it had the virtue of simplicity -- it could wear the label of "tax reform" proudly.

Just try hanging that phrase on the new tax law forged by President Bush and his Republican Congress. With its labyrinthine adjustments to the already overly complex existing tax code, the new tax plan ought to be called the Full Employment for Accountants Act.

Sure, there's that little $300-$600 bonbon of a rebate check this summer -- that's something everyone can easily grasp. But once you get past this sop to the masses and dig into the longer-term provisions of the new tax code, you face an extraordinarily confusing and deceptive array of bracket changes that kick in on an irregular schedule, tax breaks that last for a few years and then mysteriously vanish, new retirement account options that require an MBA to decipher and an estate tax that gradually phases out over a decade before miraculously returning to life like the undead.

And then there's the Alternative Minimum Tax: Our leaders have somehow managed to render the tax code's most baffling feature even more perplexing and opaque. They've ensured that millions of only modestly well-off Americans who've never heard of this shadow taxation scheme, originally aimed at the super-rich, will be tripped up by it. (Don't even think of trying to calculate the AMT without professional help.)

Perhaps Bush and Congress found it convenient to pass such a tangled mess of a bill since it makes it so much harder for most voters to figure out that the tax changes ultimately skew to benefit the wealthiest fraction of taxpayers. Perhaps the law is actually a covert scheme to push Americans across the political spectrum toward support of a flat-tax plan by driving them batty each year at tax time.

But that's probably giving Bush and his congressional allies too much Machiavellian credit. More likely, the crazy-quilt nature of the new tax plan is simply the ugly picture of what happens when the executive and legislative branches compromise by following multiple paths of least resistance -- and then try to cook the resulting numbers by setting bogus expiration dates for their new provisions, leaving future legislators to clean up the mess.

Either way, one thing's for sure -- if the federal tax system was broken already, all Bush and Congress have done is thrown more spanners in the works. Tax-paying Americans on the left, right and center will be scratching their heads for the next decade trying to make sense of this year's tax insanity. It's enough to make even liberals reconsider the flat tax -- or at least yearn for a tax reform worthy of the name.

-- Scott Rosenberg

Daily line

"We worked very hard, bent over backward in my opinion, to come up with a power-sharing arrangement in January, and we're going to expect the same treatment in return."
-- Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., warning Democrats to play nice in their new role as Senate majority

Bush buzz

With the administration's honeymoon clearly over and the Senate officially switching back to Democratic hands this week, Bush, his White House staff and his party's troops in Congress seem to have given up on their mission of "changing the tone in Washington."

One indication is the White House's delayed reaction to reports that stories of widespread vandalism by outgoing Clinton administration staffers were exaggerated. Weeks after the General Accounting Office reported that there was no evidence to substantiate such claims, the Bush team has released a list of malicious property damage it claims to have found after taking up residence in the White House.

Many Democratic critics aren't about to take the list at face value, however, given that Bush himself discounted the stories of widespread pranks in the West Wing shortly after the story broke in late January. Furthermore, the White House had told General Services Administration officials that no records of vandalism were available, which led the GAO to stop its plans for a government probe of the incident. Veterans of the Clinton White House are still insisting that the Bush administration deliver hard evidence of the alleged incidents or an apology.

Meanwhile, Republicans are already digging in for battle on Capitol Hill, where outgoing Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., circulated a memo to GOP activists encouraging them to "begin to wage the war today for the election in 2002." Other Republicans were more temperate in their comments about the power shift in the Senate, promising to make the best of a bad situation.

But GOP members have put Democrats on notice that the new minority will not be shy about using filibusters to prod confirmation of Bush's nominees, particularly his conservative judicial picks. Republicans also want the Dems to cut them a power-sharing deal similar to the one that was hammered out between party leaders at the beginning of this session.

Though the defection of Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., has already cost Republicans control of the Senate, another prominent GOP moderate has declared that he'll stick with the party. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has tried to dispel rumors that he too is contemplating a party jump, flatly denying that he has hinted to Democrats that he plans to drop the GOP label soon. He said that his weekend visit with Democratic leader Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., was just a social call. While most Republicans have accepted that explanation -- at least publicly -- some believe that McCain is a loose cannon who is laying the groundwork for a third-party challenge to Bush in 2004.

With ongoing fights in his political family, Bush has sought to restore order to his own family over the past few days. The president reportedly spent part of his weekend at Camp David lecturing his twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, about their drinking and their tangles with the law. Both girls were cited last week for breaking Texas laws by trying to buy alcohol as minors at an Austin restaurant.

And don't miss the first homeruns of the White House T-ball season. Though Sunday's game between the Fort Lincoln Brewers and the Ward 7/6th District Benning Park Parrots was a slugfest, no one knows who won because, in keeping with T-ball rules, no one kept score.

Meanwhile, one gun control group claims that the Bush Justice Department isn't doing enough to monitor the sale of firearms. The Violence Policy Center announced its plan to file suit on Monday to force Attorney General John Ashcroft to stop delaying implementation of rules to facilitate background checks of gun buyers.

Monday schedule: The president is in Florida, where he tours Everglades National Park during the morning and speaks about tax relief at an evening event in Tampa. Vice President Cheney speaks on behalf of a Republican congressional candidate in Virginia.

-- Alicia Montgomery

This day in Bush history

June 4, 1998: Gov. George W. Bush, running for reelection to the top Texas office, denied reports that national lobbyists and business interests that held fundraisers for his campaign were stoking the fires for a White House run. "There are a lot of people who live outside our state who understand how important it is for the governor's office in Texas to be held by a fellow like me," he said.

Burning Bush

Links to the Web's best sites for hardcore Bush watchers.

Send questions, comments and tips to bushed@salon.com.

Bushed! contributors: Eric Boehlert, Karen Croft, Gary Kamiya, Kerry Lauerman, Daryl Lindsey, Alicia Montgomery, Fiona Morgan, Scott Rosenberg, Jake Tapper, Joan Walsh, Anthony York

Take a look at the previous edition of Bushed!

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