Archer's Way

Don't like the IRS? Neither does Bill Archer. And now the mild-mannered Houston congressman is pushing a radical plan to shut it down.

Houston Congressman Bill Archer has a vision. It's of an America in which April is just another month, and April 15 just another day. A land where "form 1040" has no meaning, a country where "Schedule A" is the first page in a vacation itinerary, a nation where "personal deduction" is something you're required to come up with only in a logic class. It's a vision, basically, of a United States that has torn the letters "IRS" from the federal lexicon, and denied the combining of "income" and "tax" into a single phrase.

It's a vision of a U.S.A., that -- taxwise, anyway -- is a lot more like, say, Texas.

Archer has had this vision for close to a decade, but lately it's something that a number of other people have begun paying attention to as well. And for a solid, simple reason -- Archer is now in a position to help his dream become reality.

In November 1994, two days after the Republicans swept to a congressional majority, Archer called an impromptu press conference in the hearing room of the House Ways and Means Committee. As befits the most powerful committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, the room is high-ceilinged and theatrical. Its 39 members sit on a dais framed in a proscenium arch hung with blue drapes. The white walls of the auditorium are decorated with the framed oil portraits of the committee's past chairmen. And on this day, after serving more than two decades as a minority member of Ways and Means, Archer was now its senior Republican, which meant that his portrait was going up on that wall.

Compared to most politicians, Archer is a modest man, but he had an ambitious plan for Ways and Means that he wanted to talk about. He had grown fed up with the U.S. tax code, and he wanted to change it in a way that would not only affect every person and business in the nation, but reorder the global economy. His ambition was so large and, on the face of it, so preposterous that only a few people were prepared to take him seriously: Bill Archer wanted to abolish the income tax.

Though not a big personality on the Hill, Archer had, thanks to the Republican sweep, inherited a big job. As chairman of Ways and Means, he was suddenly in control of every spending bill that would appear on the floor of the House. He had vaulted from being a seldom-heard, if respected, back-bencher to one of the five or six most powerful legislators in Washington.

The implications of being in the majority were slowly sinking in on Archer and his aides that Thursday morning, when, with only two hours' notice of the new chairman's availability, what seemed like the entire Washington press corps filled the Ways and Means hearing room and began firing questions. It was a moment that both Archer and his longtime aide, Don Carlson, still relish.

"They were throwing everything they could to trip him up," Carlson recalls. There were questions on capital gains taxes, health insurance, energy tax breaks, welfare reform and committee reform, issues that Archer had studied closely for 20 years. Speaking easily, Archer lobbed answers back. As the reporters were leaving, Carlson says, he heard one of them mutter, "My God, he knew all the answers."

Maybe so. But what Archer didn't have at that time was the emphatic phrase that he has repeated over and over again in speeches and articles during the last year: that he wants to tear the income tax system out by it roots so it will never grow back. On that November day, he was, instead, almost matter-of-fact when he told reporters that he favored the development of a new tax concept "not as an add-on to the income tax, but as a complete replacement ...."

If successful, Archer's plan to get rid of the income tax would make the Contract with America look like a small-time political sideshow. His goal is to eliminate the income tax in favor of some form of a national consumption tax, most probably a sales tax. And a grassroots movement in support of a national sales tax has been building momentum, with strongholds not only in Houston, but also in California and Georgia. Archer, who prides himself on avoiding the partisan rancor that has characterized other Republican leaders, says he's building support among Democrats for his plan. If he has his way, by the year 2000, when he plans to retire from office, IRS audits, annual corporate lobbying for special tax favors and the 11-million-word income tax code will be gone forever, quaint reminders of the 20th century.

Bill Archer is the most unlikely of revolutionaries. If someone went sifting through the nation's politicians in search of a radical who wanted to restructure the very nature of America, it's unlikely he would even pause when he came across Archer. Mild of appearance, stiff of nature, Archer has never seemed to be the kind of politician who relishes power for its own sake.

A short man with a large square jaw and an athlete's body conditioned by tennis and racquetball, Archer, at 68, looks 15 years younger than he is. He grew up in Riverside Terrace near Brays Bayou, attended Rice and the University of St. Thomas, then went to law school at the University of Texas. He worked for several years in the family feed mill business, sold it, opened a law practice and then entered politics in the Texas Legislature. He has been devotedly married to a former church secretary and is the father of five children. At a time when the Republican leadership can be reasonably castigated for not living up to its self-proclaimed family values, Archer is exactly what his name implies: a straight arrow.

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