John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Bring Back Hammurabi

Posted on September 24, 2010
When you enter the Chamber of the House of Representatives, if you look up near the ceiling, ringing around the room, you see bas-relief sculptures of 23 great lawgivers in history.

Hammurabi (fl. c. 1792-1750 B.C.). King of Babylonia; author of the Code of Hammurabi, which is recognized in legal literature as one of the earliest surviving legal codes. (image courtesy

One of them is Hammurabi, the famous Babylonian ruler who put in writing the first law code.

The Code of Hammurabi was famous for its simplicity and directness.  If you did this, you were punished this way.  Even for most of the Babylonians who couldn’t read, they got the message.

I was thinking of Hammurabi and the need for a complete overhaul of our legal system when I saw that House Republicans were unveiling their pledge to America.

The pledge was fine, as far as it went. Designed to put something positive out into cyber-world without actually creating the kind of waves that could prove to be politically counter-productive, the Republican pledge was conservative in its approach.  It certainly doesn’t excite many passions.

In the pledge, Republicans took the position that we should make the Bush tax cuts permanent and I understand why they did that.  But making the Bush tax cuts permanent precludes wholesale tax reform.

We need wholesale tax reform more than we need to make the Bush tax cuts permanent.  Without reform, our tax code will continue to stifle growth, skew the marketplace, inhibit job creation, hurt American competitiveness, and underperform in collecting revenues.

In 6 years, we will celebrate (or maybe mourn) the 100th anniversary of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, which allowed the introduction of the national income tax.  Over those hundred years, we have grown a tax code that is chock full of so many exemptions, exceptions, loopholes, and giveaways that it has grown to about 72,000 pages.   In the close to 6 million words that make up our tax code, who knows what special breaks have been put in place to stifle competition and avoid tax compliance?

Democrats had two years and huge majorities to deal with tax code, and of course, they didn’t.  Instead of trying to simplify the code, Democrats were focused on raising taxes to pay for more government spending.  They couldn’t even make a decision on whether to let the Bush tax cuts expire or not.  That indecision has had a direct impact of job creation, with tax uncertainty usually cited by business owners as one of the principle reason that they aren’t hiring.

Republicans aren’t going to be able to reform the tax code with Barack Obama as President, but they can start the conversation about true tax reform today.  They can talk about how our tax code makes our companies less competitive, making it harder for them to hire.  They can talk about how complexity kills innovation, and give more power to those who can hire high-powered tax attorneys.  They can talk about how our international tax system puts our companies at a tremendous disadvantage vs. the Europeans and Chinese.  They can talk about why it is bad that having close to half the country not paying a dime in income taxes is bad for America long-term.

This conversation needs to start today.  Our income tax code is a relic of the 20th century.  We need to move to a 21st century model.  Making the Bush tax cuts permanent makes it harder to create a new code for the new century.

Hammurabi knew how to create a law that everybody could understand.  Maybe he can lend a hand, instead of just sitting up there on the Chamber wall, quietly mocking the incompetence of the lawmakers below.

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