Quack! Quack! Quack!

What walks like a tax, squawks like a tax and looks like a tax?

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In demanding last month that Congress produce a deficit-trimming budget without resort to accounting gimmickry or tax increases, George Bush knew he might as well have ordered the sun not to rise. Last week, as Congress raced to adjourn before the Thanksgiving holiday, it sent the President a final 1990 budget bill lopping $14.7 billion off the deficit -- thanks, of course, to gimmicks and a $5.6 billion increase in what people outside the Washington Beltway usually call taxes. Without a murmur of protest or the slightest hint of a blush, Bush agreed to sign the measure into law.

Yet, in Washington, where rhetoric and reality constantly collide, the "stealth budget" will enable the President to continue to spout his well- worn 1988 campaign bromide -- "Read my lips, no new taxes." How can he get away with it? Because that bugaboo of the Republican right, the income tax, was left untouched. Instead, Administration and congressional budgeteers hiked levies on oil and chemicals, advanced the collection dates for various taxes, and increased fees on such items as tickets for international air travel and cruises. Except for a leap in the amount of personal income subject to Social Security taxes from $48,000 to $51,300 next Jan. 1, the tax boosts do not directly affect large numbers of people -- that is, voters.

Gimmicks? Of course. About $4.6 billion in deficit reduction comes from allowing the across-the-board cuts triggered by Congress's failure to adopt a ) budget in October to remain in effect through the first week of February. By declaring the Postal Service's deficit "off budget," the number crunchers "saved" $1.7 billion. A similar bit of wizardry -- prepaying a $3 billion Pentagon payroll in the 1989 fiscal year -- "reduced" the 1990 deficit by that amount. Bush was in no position to resist the sleight of hand: the legerdemain was originally concocted by his budget director, Richard Darman.

Like Ronald Reagan, who managed to preside in relative secrecy over $90 billion in "revenue enhancements" after the well-publicized (and disastrous) 1981 tax cuts, Bush has some bipartisan support for his antitax posture. Democrat James Sasser of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, insisted last week, "What we've done here does not waddle enough to be called ducks." Perhaps. But since the nearly $6 billion in revenue enhancements enacted last week will rise to $30 billion over the next five years, taxpayers may be forgiven if they exercise their right to squawk.