WASHINGTON -- Tax policy does not operate in a vacuum.
Fortunately for the municipal bond market. Rep. Beryl Anthony, D-Ark., drove that point home to President Bush's three top economic advisers last week and, in the process, appeared to gain an important ally for tax-exempt bonds.
As the House Ways and Means Committee launched its hearings in preparation for drafting a major tax bill next year, Rep. Anthony tore into the administration's proposal to stimulate economic growth by creating family savings accounts and urged Mr. Bush to modify it so it would not hurt the demand for tax-exempt bonds.
The family savings plan, which the President unsuccessfully proposed in both his 1991 and 1992 budgets, would exempt interest earned on deposits in such accounts from federal tax if the principal remained in the account for seven years.
However, the plan would lure middle-income individual investors away from the tax-exempt market by creating a kind of "super" investment that would carry a higher interest rate than municipals while being exempt from federal taxes.
Worse yet, Rep. Anthony told Office of Management and Budget Director Richard Darman that his analysis of the family savings account shows that whatever economic growth it would stimulate would be offset by the damage done to municipal bonds.
"You will hurt marketability and drive cost up" for tax-exempt bond issuance, he told Mr. Darman. "This is going to hurt state and local governments' ability to invest in future infrastructure needs. It appears to me this is just not a wise idea at this particular time."
While Mr. Darman did not respond directly to Rep. Anthony's criticisms, he appeared to fluff them off.
Then something even more significant happened.
Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski appeared to come to the aid of the municipal market by urging Mr. Darman to listen to Rep. Anthony's comments, saying. "The analysis by Mr. Anthony is worthwhile and something you should benefit from."
Since Congress and the administration now seem likely to reopen the federal tax code in the midst of the 1992 presidential campaign, it is important that Rep. Anthony chose to use part of his time to try to convince Congress and the administration not to hurt the ability of state and local governments to finance the repair of the nation's infrastructure that is needed to stimulate long-term growth in the economy.
And it is extremely heartening that Mr. Anthony, who has become the champion of municipal bonds on Capitol Hill, may have gotten Mr. Rostenkowski on his side.