Time for a Tax Surcharge?

Lyndon Johnson, pressed by the financial drain of war and ambitious domestic programs, went to the American people for help, asking Congress to adopt a one-time income tax surcharge of 5 percent. Given the rising public anger over the Vietnam War, there was serious opposition and it grew even stronger when the president was advised that the 5 percent needed to be doubled to 10.

After months of delay, Republican Sen. John Williams of Delaware, then the ranking minority member of the Senate Finance Committee, managed to win approval of the tax by inserting it in a House-passed revenue measure. Without the surcharge, the now infamous “guns and butter” strain on the nation’s purse would have been far worse. Asked why he would act for a Democrat president, Williams replied that it was the responsible thing to do.

Now President Bush faces the same potentially disastrous fiscal consequences of trying to conduct an expensive war of occupation while faced with the enormous costs of rebuilding much of the Gulf Coast. Why not then follow Johnson’s course and appeal to all Americans to accept a similar brief levy to offset the hundreds of billions of dollars needed for their blighted neighbors in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas?

On any number of occasions, Americans have shown their generosity in times of crisis, giving billions in money, supplies and expertise to those in trouble. Katrina and Rita have been no exception with a huge amount of charitable contributions already donated and more coming daily to relieve the suffering of the thousands of people displaced by the storms. In reality it is a mere pittance when measured against what will be needed _ an amount that Bush says will be met by the federal government no matter how much and despite the impact on an already over-sized deficit. It will have to be compensated for by reductions in other programs, he says.

Easier said than done, Mr. President. Already both sides of the congressional aisle have begun grumbling about where the money is going to come from, with most of the noble lawmakers no more willing to give up spending on their favorite programs than you are. Should the billions to be spent on the new Medicare prescription benefit be delayed? How about holding off on that pork-loaded highway bill with 6,000-plus earmarks for pet projects like the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska? That’ll be the day! Or should the Congress repeal your income tax cuts in the face of this financial hurricane, Mr. President?

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who is in charge of the hearings into what went wrong with the preparations for hurricanes, told reporters recently Congress needed to look to the $180 billion annual agricultural subsidy; tax breaks given corporations and billions for the tobacco buyout for money to meet the Gulf Coast challenge. She defended the highway bill, arguing that many of the earmarks in it were for legitimate long overdue projects.

If ever there was a time for a chief executive to use the power and persuasion of his office to appeal to his fellow citizens to give one last measure it is now. Not having to worry about reelection but how history will perceive him gives Bush an advantage to bring this about.

Unfortunately, the president has not shown much inclination to use his bully pulpit _ or his veto _ as wisely and as vigorously as he might have except to win war support. The debilitating gas prices are a case in point. They are not a recent phenomenon. Those pressures have been building for months. Yet he has remained virtually silent until recently and then only to ask Americans to be conservators and not to demand that the oil companies give up their astronomically increased profits or that the Saudis open the spigots or that the refinery capacity be increased or that the environmentalists shut up and be reasonable for awhile.

Jawboning is a presidential weapon of enormous potential. A one-time tax surcharge earmarked strictly for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the Gulf Coast would be the cleanest and simplest way of meeting this incredible challenge, particularly since it is evident that neither the White House nor the Congress has any appetite for cutting regular spending. The impact on charity would be slight because it would be temporary. The deficit, already too large, would be spared at least that much growth. It is the responsible thing to do.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)