Punishing Piety

  A few years ago, the U.S. Tax Court considered the case an American couple who, every December, flew to Mexico, got a quick divorce, and then, after a week sunning themselves on the beach, flew back to the United States and remarried. Why would they do that? Because our tax system punishes people for being married. By being divorced on December 31, this couple could file separate returns, thereby saving themselves thousands of dollars. Well, the court put an end to the scheme. But the case illustrates out one of the great absurdities of our tax code: The "marriage penalty." It works like this: Income up to a certain amount is taxed at a 15 percent rate; income above that, at 28 percent. Consider now the case of a couple we'll call the Browns. Mr. Brown makes $45,000 a year; Mrs. Brown makes $35,000. Some of Mr. Brown's salary is taxed at 15 percent; the remainder, at 28 percent. But because she's married to Mr. Brown, Mrs. Brown's entire salary is taxed at the higher, 28 percent rate. The tax code treats the Browns' earnings as one big paycheck. But suppose the Browns had been living together instead of marrying. In that case, Mrs. Brown would have been able to file separately. Most of her earnings would have been taxed at the lower, 15 percent rate, saving her thousands of dollars in taxes. In effect, the Browns are paying a huge "penalty" because they got married instead of living together. It's outrageous that our tax laws should penalize people for doing something that contributes to a well-ordered society, and that's why the House of Representatives voted recently to end the "marriage penalty" as part of its tax-reduction package. In conference this week, pro-family supporters came through. The House, led by Majority Leader Dick Armey, Majority Whip Tom Delay, and Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Archer, held their ground, insisting on repeal of the "marriage penalty." And thanks to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, his deputy Don Nickles, Senators Brownback and Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Senate agreed to eliminate the "marriage penalty." The bill squeaked through in the Senate, 50-49, but President Clinton has threatened to veto the tax cut. Well, even if President Clinton makes good on his veto threat, the issue has been joined. Congress will come back with another tax bill, and we want to be certain that the "marriage penalty" repeal stays in it. The press says nobody cares about tax reduction. Well, I say we need to change that. Politicians today respond to polls, and if you and I will talk to our neighbors and express our views on this issue, the politicians are going to get the message. At the very least, the debate is going to allow Christians to bring up an important subject that often gets lost in politics: Government's role in promoting virtue. So a sincere "thank you" to all those lawmakers who did the right thing in supporting the measure. And over the August recess, we need to let our leaders know that we strongly support these efforts to end the "marriage penalty." Because, while no one likes paying taxes, the least we should be able to expect is that our tax code not punish people for doing the right thing.


Chuck Colson



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