While the current crop of 2008 presidential candidates continues to stake out positions on the Iraq war, health care and the economy, only a few have shown much interest in a key issue of concern to most tax professionals - reform of the nation's overly cumbersome tax system.
While that could change as more middle-income Americans find themselves ambushed by the alternative minimum tax, right now it's the fringe candidates who are making tax reform a centerpiece of their campaigns.
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., is among the more outspoken of these, calling the current Tax Code too "complex and burdensome and desperately in need of reform."
Noting that "Americans spend roughly $157 billion each year in tax preparation to ensure they do not run afoul of the Internal Revenue Service," the GOP candidate supports a flat tax approach that "simplifies tax preparation, applies a low tax rate to all Americans, and respects the special financial burden carried by American families raising children."
Ironically, the candidate whose tax-reform views mesh most closely with Brownback's is Democratic hopeful Maurice R. "Mike" Gravel. The former senator from Alaska favors abolishing the IRS and eliminating the federal income tax altogether. In its place, Gravel supports a "Fair Tax" approach involving a progressive national sales tax on new products and services.
"To compensate for necessities, such as food, lodging, clothing, etc., there would be a 'prebate' to reimburse taxpayers for the taxes paid on necessities," he explained.
Among the Democrats, the only front-row candidate thus far to call for full-fledged reform of the federal Tax Code is former North Carolina Senator John Edwards. He has blasted the current tax system for being "unnecessarily complicated and full of shelters and loopholes that favor wealth over work," and is calling for a fresh approach that would replace tax accountants with Washington bureaucrats.
Under his plan, the IRS would effectively put most tax preparers out of business by calculating the tax bills for millions of families and mailing them an invoice on a new federal "Form 1."
"Hard-working families who pay their taxes shouldn't have to pay tax preparers too," Edwards said. "With 'Form 1,' there is only one thing you have to do - sign and return it."
On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain of Arizona has vowed to "tear up the 44,000-page Tax Code that benefits special interests," crack down on questionable charitable deductions by the wealthy, and shift to a flat tax system that places all taxpayers in the 15 percent bracket.
Other top-tier presidential candidates, however, are far less specific about how, or even whether, they would reform the tax system.
Although former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has pledged to "cut taxes and reform the Tax Code" as part of his "12 Commitments to the American People" platform, the Republican candidate's campaign Web site offers no details on the plan.
As governor of Massachusetts, Republican Mitt Romney pledged to short-circuit state tax increases, and, as a candidate for president, he has proposed eliminating federal taxes on interest, dividends and capital gains for "middle-income Americans."
Romney has declined to take a position on whether the federal income tax should be replaced by a sales tax - a reluctance that earned him the moniker "Flip-Flop Mitt" among some "Fair Tax" proponents.
You won't find tax reform listed among the top campaign issues for most leading Democrats, either. Although their official Internet sites express detailed positions on such issues as welfare, global warming and Social Security, top contenders such as Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware have skipped over tax issues altogether.
That's not to say these Democrats haven't staked out positions on tax policy in the past.
In the Senate, Biden voted consistently against permanently repealing estate taxes, extending tax cuts on capital gains and dividends, and requiring a super-majority of Congress to approve future tax increases. He also voted for, and against, reducing the "marriage penalty."
Hillary Clinton has left a similarly mixed legislative record on tax issues, voting in favor of increasing tax deductions on college tuitions, against cuts in the marriage penalty and "death tax," but for extending existing tax reductions for capital gains.
In contrast, Obama has voted repeatedly to slash tax cuts on income from capital gains, and has proposed a "small savers' credit for low-income folks that save through an IRA or pension plan."
Obama also wants outright repeal of what he termed the "terrible" AMT.
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