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All eyes on Senate corridors

THE new Senate television cameras will be focused on the chamber floor today. Given the topic under debate -- the new tax-reform bill -- it might be better for the cameras to pan the Capitol's corridors. Lobbyists will be out in droves to protect their clients' special interests. Efforts to alter the Senate measure at this stage should be resisted. It is better that the bill, as written by the Finance Committee, be treated as a whole and then moved on to the conference with the House, which has already passed its own version of tax reform. As Senate Finance Committee chairman Bob Packwood points out, only in the joint conference committee will the significant issues be resolved: the fate of individual retirement accounts, the relative tax burdens for individuals and corporations, whether the lowering of the top bracket will sufficiently offset capital-gains changes, and whether the ``revenue'' reform should front-load tax increases and delay tax breaks to help ease the deficit.

Given the latitude for rewriting, only when the conference meets will it be clear whether tax reform in 1986 can achieve its goals. Of those goals, ``simplicity'' is the least persuasive. There may be fewer brackets, but a new code would be no less the terrain for experts than the existing code.

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More important, the tax code should evolve in certain directions. The Reagan administration's previous reforms were intended partly to offset the tax increases that resulted from the inflation of the 1970s. Low-income people with dependents had suffered badly in that period. This has led to a coalition between populist conservatives and House liberals to take low-income families off the tax rolls. The question of asking poor families to start paying taxes at the $8,000 income level when the poverty level is $11,000 needed attention. The tax changes of 1981 took care of some problems, such as the escalation in social security rates. But the tax cut was huge, even after the dike-filling in 1982 and 1984. Sheltered dollars increased four- and fivefold. Since individuals can do far more sheltering than corporations, most of the hotel industry shifted into partnerships. Investment was skewed in favor of office construction beyond market needs.

A goal of tax reform should be making the tax treatments of various types of investments more nearly equal and to encourage investment in truly productive enterprises, rather than mere tax shelters. Here the supply-siders have a point: If top marginal rates are reduced, people will indulge in less tax-motivated ``investment'' that fails to create new products or jobs.

The political momentum behind tax reform has several sources: the need for legislators to pass something in an election year, the administration's desire for a lower top rate, the prospect that tax reform could help finesse the deficit impasse, and the above-mentioned coalition to help low-income families.

The present tax code has inconsistencies: It contains preferential tax incentives to save at the same time that it promotes tax-preferred spending (as with interest deductions). And Washington has yet to face up to the cost of running the federal government. Whatever the Senate does, one looks forward to the final conference phase to see whether genuine reform is achieved without merely shifting the burden unduly to middle-income taxpayers -- or their children.

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