, Salem, MA


March 1, 2014

Shribman: Why tax reform is doomed


In truth, the political circumstances of 1985-1986 are far different from the circumstances in Washington in 2014.

In those years, a popular Republican president held Congress in his sway, even bringing along many Democrats to his tax and spending initiatives. Today a Democratic president with tepid approval ratings has no sway at all with the House and minimum influence in the Senate. In those years, tax overhaul had many fathers (Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri along with Republican Sen. William Roth of Delaware and Rep. Jack F. Kemp of New York), and it was a bipartisan push. Today’s Camp bill lost its Democratic sponsor, former Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, sworn in 10 days ago as the new American ambassador to Beijing.

The Reagan effort was the sort of spectacle that only the Gipper could swing. His co-conspirator was Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, the gruff Chicago pol who headed the House Ways and Means Committee, and in Reagan’s nationwide address he urged Americans: “Write a letter to Washington. Just address it to Rosty, Washington, D.C.” Two days later, Treasury Secretary James A. Baker, no one’s idea of a Republican-in-name-only, appeared before the tax-writing committee sporting a large black-and-white “Write Rosty” button.

The following elements of 1985-1986 are missing today: The kind of goodwill that would prompt a GOP president to elevate a Democrat like Rostenkowski, who died in 2010, from Capitol powerbroker to national celebrity. A president who can make his priorities the priorities of Congress.

A chief executive who has enough self-confidence to share the limelight and the credit, along with the responsibility. A Treasury secretary with Baker’s will and acumen to steer the process. Strong Senate leaders, such as Sen. Robert J. Dole, adept in the unwritten rules of the chamber and with credibility on both sides of the aisle and on both sides of the Capitol.

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