DULUTH - U.S. Rep. John Linder has said for years that only a groundswell among the American people will convince Congress to scrap the Internal Revenue Service and replace it with a national sales tax.
Wednesday night's rally at a jammed Gwinnett Convention Center in support of Linder's FairTax bill looked a lot like the popular uprising the Duluth Republican has envisioned since he introduced what has become his signature legislation in 1999.
"The grass roots are working,'' said Joseph Gullett of Norcross, motioning to more than 100 people gathered outside the convention center listening to a radio broadcast of the rally because they couldn't get into the packed building.
"It's nice to see all these people with the same ideas,'' added Richard Trenchik, who drove all the way from Warner Robins only to be turned back from the center after it had reached its capacity of 4,500 people.
Trenchik and like-minded FairTax supporters came to Duluth not only to get the latest on Linder's bill but to hear from Fox Television Network host Sean Hannity and syndicated radio talk show host Neal Boortz.
Linder and Boortz combined to author "The FairTax Book,'' which was published last August and still is No. 3 on The New York Times Bestseller List for paperback nonfiction.
"When the IRS is eliminated and the income tax is abolished, we will remember it started right here in Atlanta,'' Hannity said to a huge ovation.
The FairTax legislation would do away with the federal income tax and replace it with a 23 percent national sales tax, the rate the bill's supporters say would be needed to ensure that it raises the same amount of revenue as the current system.
By shifting taxation from income to consumption, supporters say Americans would be encouraged to save and invest. Such a sea change in the way people handle their money, the argument goes, would foster economic growth.
"People want ... to invest with no consequences, to save with no consequences,'' Boortz said.
But critics say the FairTax would affect low-income Americans disproportionately because they spend a larger percentage of their incomes compared to savings and investments than the more well-to-do.
A tax reform commission formed by President Bush last year cited that as a concern when it decided to recommend relatively minor changes to the tax system rather than a dramatic overhaul like the FairTax. The panel also questioned whether a 23 percent sales tax would raise enough revenue.
Linder's bill addresses the concern that the FairTax would hurt poor people through a rebate that would go to low-income taxpayers.
Still, the measure has languished in the House through seven years and four congresses.
Linder said he's not surprised that it's taking so long, given America's history with major initiatives. He said Social Security, which was created in 1935 as part of the New Deal, was being talked about as early as the 1870s.
"Big ideas take time,'' he said. "But we've started to move the country, and they will start to move the Congress.''
Indeed, despite the cool reception the FairTax got from the president's commission, Linder told the crowd Wednesday night that House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., has scheduled a meeting with Bush in two weeks to give LInder a chance to pitch the legislation.
Linder said Hastert wants to include the FairTax as part of a new Contract with America, modeled after the 1994 platform that played a major role in Republicans winning a majority in the House for the first time in 40 years.
"We won in '94 because we had new ideas and big ideas,'' Linder said. "We haven't done that since.''
Wednesday night's huge civic center audience tied up traffic on Sugarloaf Parkway, delaying another large crowd trying to get to the Grayson High School graduation at the adjacent arena.
At the beginning of the rally, Boortz told the audience that the parking lot was full an hour before the 7:30 p.m. rally. With up to 2,000 people unable to get in, Atlanta's WSB Radio - Boortz's flagship station - decided to broadcast the event live.
"We're sorry,'' Linder said. "Next time, we'll get you a bigger building.''