Monday, February 14, 2011

Could Your Senator Conquer the 1040?


WHO is America’s funniest politician?

It sounds like a question with a built-in oxymoron, like “What’s the best-ever disco song?” or “Do you serve jumbo shrimp?”

Still, there’s a comer on the scene: Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota. He shows promise. When, in his speeches, he paraphrases the movie “Talladega Nights” and says, “I want to thank the Lord for my smoking-hot wife,” how could you not smile?

Lately on the lecture-and-talk-show circuit, Mr. Pawlenty, a Republican, has been trotting out an out-and-out zinger: he says members of Congress should have to do their own taxes. Hilarious, right?

As he recently put it to George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America” on ABC, they should have to do the job with “no help of an accountant, a lawyer or a tax specialist.”

I called up Mr. Pawlenty to ask how the line goes over with the crowds. “It kills, right?”

He seemed a bit taken aback. He’s as serious as a 1040, he said — members of Congress should have to fill out their own forms, “so they can experience the full brunt of the mindless, senseless burden that is our U.S. tax code that they visit on hard-working Americans.”

“I don’t mean it as a joke,” he said.

But, I asked, doesn’t the line get a laugh?

“I offer it a little tongue-in-cheek,” he acknowledged. “But I mean it seriously. I think it’s worth doing.”

By the way, I asked Mr. Pawlenty if he did his own taxes.

“No way!” he replied, with a tone that suggested he had made his point.

The Pawlenty plan is promising, and not just because I’m particularly pleased with the alliteration. Watching our elected representatives take on the challenge, broken pencils and all, could make for some entertaining moments — a kind of reality TV meets C-Span.

Some members of Congress, after all, have developed some quite interesting tax issues for themselves. Think for a moment about former Representative Randy Cunningham, and how, pencil in hand and calculator before him, he might have dealt with the income from his many bribes. Did he keep receipts?

And how about the foil-wrapped $90,000 in cash that investigators found in the freezer of former Representative William J. Jefferson ? Would the brick of bills be classified as frozen assets?

Let’s face it, even members of Congress without such problems probably have more complicated financial situations than most of us do. Some of them, like Senators John Kerry and John McCain, might have had relatively straightforward personal tax returns, except that they married into big, big money.

Then there’s Representative Darrell Issa, the California Republican who is the new chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and who made hundreds of millions of dollars manufacturing car alarms. (By the way, when you hear “Step away from the car,” it’s often Mr. Issa’s voice warning you.)

When I asked Frederick Hill, his spokesman, whether Mr. Issa would be willing to fill out his own forms, he gamely joked, “You wouldn’t believe me if I just told you he did the 1040-EZ?”

Think for a moment about Representative Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, who has raised 5 children and 23 foster children. If she claimed all of them as dependents, would she have so many deductions that the government would end up owing her money?

I called Noah Kimerling, a retired accountant who used to do my taxes, and asked what he thought of the Pawlenty plan.

“I don’t think they have the ability to do it, based on what they say publicly,” he said. As for Ms. Bachmann, he said, the alternative minimum tax would kick in, no matter how many dependents she could claim.

After a little digging, I discovered that Ms. Bachmann’s children are all grown anyway. Besides, she happens to know her way around a tax form, having earned an advanced degree in tax law from the William & Mary Law School. She may be one of the few members of Congress who actually could do her own taxes without breaking a sweat!

I called Paul L. Caron, a visiting professor of law at the Pepperdine University School of Law in California, and he seemed charmed by the Pawlenty plan — though, he noted, the idea “has been around for a while.”

In fact, he suggested, why stop at taxes? “How about requiring members of Congress to go through T.S.A. lines at airports like the rest of us and get body-scanned? Getting their license plates renewed at the Department of Motor Vehicles?”

That’s bold, but I’ve never met a plan that couldn’t be made even bolder. Why not send our lawmakers to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan? It would certainly focus their thinking about the wars, and ensure that veterans aren’t slighted on health care and benefits when they return home.

Turn it up to 11! What about the space program, which will lose the only American-controlled path to space this year when the shuttle program ends? Members of Congress might gain a sense of what the program is all about if we sent them to the International Space Station.

The only question is whether to bring them home again.

WHICH gets us back to the concept of a reality show. Imagine this: Instead of voting one another off the island, the astro-lawmakers have to earn the right to come home. The losers stick with freeze-dried food and the zero-gravity toilet.

Put this puppy on pay-per-view, and the federal deficit will be paid down in no time.

In fact, let’s send these folks on a never-ending, Pawlenty-inspired empathy tour so they can learn what it’s like to live with failing schools and emergency-room visits without insurance. They don’t seem all that interested in actually fixing our problems, so let’s have them try living with them.

They’ll spend so much time on Pawlenty-palooza, finding out what it’s like to be an average American, that they won’t have any time at all to pass legislation.

Many of us may be able to live with that. But I’d like to see them actually try to work together and solve problems instead of just shouting about how the other guy caused them.

If they can’t do that, there’s one more all-too-common American experience they could learn about: standing in an unemployment line.

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