THE BLOG

A Tribute to Sam Gibbons

10/19/2012 09:52 pm ET | Updated Dec 19, 2012

Too bad Sam Gibbons isn't still around to advise President Obama on the central issue of the 2012 election.

That was my first thought after hearing that the 92-year-old former Democratic congressman from Florida died on October 10 at his home in Tampa, two days after Obama and Mitt Romney sparred at their second debate over -- among other things -- how to fix the economy.

It prompted me to dig out a column I wrote for The Hill in June 1995, after interviewing Gibbons when his brief stint as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee was terminated as Republicans regained control of the House in the watershed election of 1994.

My column, headlined "Sam Gibbons: Sisyphus of tax reform," was inspired by his effort to replace the impossibly complicated federal tax code with a simple value-added tax. And even though he admitted it had little chance of passage, I think it's an idea that Obama, could, and should, support today. Here's what I wrote at the time:

Rep. Sam Gibbons sat me down the other day and tried to explain why it would be a good thing for the country if I quit paying federal income and Social Security taxes.

Naturally, the idea appealed to me since it would instantly increase the size of my take-home pay. And my employer would be happy too, since under a radical new tax proposal crafted by the veteran Florida Democrat, businesses no longer would pay any corporate income taxes.

The bad news is: The value-added tax proposed by the former acting chairman and now ranking minority member of the House Ways and Means Committee won't be enacted before my next Visa bill comes due. In face, given the mortality tables, it probably won't be enacted in the 75-year-old Gibbons' lifetime, and perhaps not even in mine.

"But it will happen eventually, predicts Gibbons, who in testimony before his Ways and Means colleagues earlier this month, laid out his plan to repeal all federal personal and corporate income and most payroll taxes - state taxes are not affected - and replace them with a simple value-added tax (VAT).

"When I went on the committee 26 years ago, I was going to be a great reformer and make our income tax system simpler and more fair," Gibbons said, his craggy features framed by a postcard view of the Capitol beyond his Rayburn Building window. "But I've come to the conclusion that it really can't be fixed, and that the current system should be replaced."

Gibbons, who ran the tax-writing committee during the 103rd Congress after longtime Chairman Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois was indicted, says the current Byzantine tax system is so complex and so riddled with sacred cows "that politically, you can't get the votes to change it much.

"We haven't changed it a hell of a lot in the last 30 years," says the decorated World War II paratrooper who landed at Normandy on D-Day. "We've nibbled around the edges but the biggest burden remains about the same," which falls most heavily on lower and middle income families. This doesn't' include the "very, very regressive" FICA or Social Security tax, which Gibbons say hits average wage earners the hardest.

Gibbons would replace this "maze of complexity" with a broadly based, uniformly applied value-added tax (VAT), which he emphasizes is a "pure consumption tax" and not a national retail sales tax. The tax would be collected, and paid, by all incorporated and unincorporated businesses, with a single rate set at the level necessary to replace the repealed taxes.

The taxable amount, explains Gibbons, would be its economic "value-added," which would be the amount it earns, if any, from the sales of all goods and services, except exports, after deducting all payments for goods and services purchased from other businesses.

Gibbons maintains that his tax reform plan is simpler and fairer than the current system. While it wouldn't change the current distributions of the tax burden, which averages 23.9 percent across the board, it would provide rebates to low and moderate income individuals, either through an earned income credit or direct payment. It also would bolster American competitiveness by stemming the loss of American jobs because the VAT would apply to sales of imported goods and services but not to exports.

Now in his 33rd year in Congress, Gibbons may be an endangered species as a New Deal-Great Society Southern Democrat. But he's convinced that much of the distrust of Washington that fed the Republican revolution of 1994 is due to the unfairness and horrendous complexity of the nation's tax system. However long it takes - or however much time he has left - he's determined to change that."

Gibbons, who helped shape much of President Johnson's Great Society program, retired in 1996 after 34 years in Congress. He never achieved his goal of reforming the federal tax system, but I hope that someday, someone inspired by his example, will make his dream a reality.