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The Libertarian

Vin Suprynowicz

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The supposedly august body known as the U.S. Senate has not exactly done itself proud in recent months.

First there was the puzzling initiative to encourage the ongoing abdication of immigration law enforcement -- lots of amnesty, no fences -- instead of demanding that the executive branch simply enforce the current law and round ’em up, as the lower house quite properly prefers (and as all federal officers, including President Bush, swore an oath to do.) Perhaps the leadership should look up the term “writ of mandamus.”

But the parade of foolishness really got underway with the recent posing and pontificating over flag-burning and homosexual marriage. With costly and divisive wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan; with the Bill of Rights threatened on the home front under auspices of the “War on Terror”; with Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid nearing or at the point of actuarial bankruptcy ... these are the most clear and present dangers facing the republic?

Obviously, it’s an election year.

On the bright side, that looming rendezvous with the electorate appears to have done some good when it comes to phone and Internet taxes.

Under bills that advanced in the Senate Wednesday, a century-old federal tax on local phone calls would disappear, and state and local taxes on cell phones and Internet connections would be barred.

Nor can Democrats demagogue these triumphs as “tax cuts for the rich.” Rather, “The savings will apply to anyone with a land line telephone,” explained Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.

The local phone tax dates back to 1898, when phones were considered a luxury and the Congress was seeking extra money to finance the Spanish-American War. Businesses had recently challenged the time-honored tax in court and won, arguing it was never meant to apply to modern phone technologies.

Consumers can already expect a refund for three years worth of the taxes -- the Treasury Department has agreed to stop levying the tax as of the end of July, and to return as much as $13 billion in overbillings to consumers. Sen. Grassley’s panel OK’d a bill that would end the levy, permanently.

In two committees, senators also voted to take a temporary ban on state and local taxes on consumer Internet connections -- due to expire in 2007 -- and extend it ... forever. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., won approval of the tax ban in the Senate Finance Committee, explaining he didn’t want such taxes to have a lifetime like that of the phone tax.

“The war ended two centuries ago, and Congress is just now getting around to getting rid of the tax,” he explained. (The Spanish-American war actually ended 108 years ago.)

Four senators from states that had enacted Internet access taxes before the 1998 ban went into effect vowed to fight the federal pre-emption, whimpering that the tax ban could cost their greedy state and local governments several billion dollars in expected tax revenue.

Oh, boo hoo. One of these states is New Jersey, which faces a budget crisis because of plans to hike state spending 9.2 percent this year, while its population grows at a rate of only 0.4 percent. Solution? Limit spending to the same amount this year as last.

A similar complaint will doubtless be voiced by Potomac Democrats on the ramifications of the vanishing phone tax. The Republican majority reduces Americans’ tax burdens without reducing spending by an equivalent amount, they will likely complain.

And they will be right. What a great election year opportunity for the Democrats!

The GOP has foolishly cast off and abandoned its mantle as the budget-cutting party of fiscal responsibility. So, let the Democrats pick it up and put it back on!

All they need do is dust off their 1932 platform -- the one on which Franklin Roosevelt ran so successfully against an earlier big-spending Republican -- the one which called for “a federal budget annually balanced” and “an immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus ... to accomplish a savings of not less than 25 percent in the cost of the federal government,” not to mention “the removal of government from all fields of private enterprise except where necessary to develop public works.”

Let the Democrats, for starters, revive President Bush’s modest proposal to rescue Social Security from actuarial bankruptcy by creating small, privately-owned accounts within the system -- sums the enrollee can leave as property to his or her children or heirs. Next, let them submit in bill draft form Ronald Reagan’s proposal to permanently shutter the federal departments of Education and Energy.

The Republicans can hardly refuse to embrace these plans -- they were proposed by presidents of their own party!

The new, fiscally responsible Democratic Party. They’ve been looking for something dramatic to take to the polls. We’re waiting.