Judd Gregg: Passing Tax Reform 101

Judd Gregg, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, served as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee from 2005 to 2007 and ranking member from 2007 to 2011. He recently wrote an op-ed featured in The Hill. It is reposted here.

A wall all along the southern border would surely be a signature event.

The idea certainly worked well for the Ming Dynasty in China. It makes a great tourist attraction if done right. In China, for example, they have an alpine slide you can take down from the top of the wall right into a village of t-shirt shops.

Definitely, this could be a signature structure for the Donald Trump presidency.

But why not try something else, something subtler but with more pop?

How about tax reform — big-time tax reform, the type of tax reform that takes our morbid economy and puts supercharges under it?

In the campaign, candidate Trump did a good job of talking about overhauling both our corporate and individual tax systems. But he also had real, substantive proposals on the topics.

The question becomes, how do you actually accomplish such a major initiative?

It is true that Republicans have majorities in both Houses of Congress, but that does not mean they control both Houses.

A little historical context might be useful in determining the best way to accomplish a “huuuge” initiative like major tax reform.

First, there is the lesson of ObamaCare. This policy obviously had many issues. It was destined to fail due to its misdirected incentives and uninhibited costs. But, independent of its inherent failings, there was the large mistake of the manner in which it was passed.

It was brought to the floor of the Senate on a Saturday, drafted without any input from the minority — in this case, the Republicans — and passed three days later on Christmas Eve, without the allowance of any significant amendments and on a party-line vote.

This hyper-partisan approach, which was available to the Democrats because they controlled the House of Representatives and had a sixty-vote majority in the Senate, led to a massive upheaval. 

President Obama won the bill and lost the war. Because of the process used, a large percentage of Americans from Day One felt the law was unfair and misguided. It was rejected not only on its merits but as a result of having been rammed through.  

The lesson was obvious. When a law that is going to affect most Americans is passed, it must be viewed as fair. Fairness in our system is defined by bipartisanship.

The arbitrary and officious use of a majority position will lead inevitably to extreme opposition by the minority and popular support for their frustration. Governing in this manner does not accomplish a great deal that is lasting.

The second major item of history to turn to for insight is the last truly comprehensive and successful tax reform effort.  

This was the Reagan/Rostenkowski bill of 1987. It was a long time ago but it remains the best template for doing what President-elect Trump wants to do.

His proposals are essentially a restatement of this past plan. President-elect Trump is suggesting a major reduction in tax rates financed by a major reduction in tax deductions and exemptions. The Reagan/Rostenkowski bill got the top tax rate down to 28 percent by doing this. But it’s important to note this was a bipartisan effort led by two people of very different political views. 

I was on the Ways and Means Committee at the time. It was not an easy undertaking but it was incredibly productive and positive.

The third example of history is still evolving. Within the Congress, there already is something of a working-across-the-aisle effort to do the type of tax reform sought by the president-elect.  

These efforts, known as the Wyden/Coats bill and the Simpson/Bowles proposal respectively, have had considerable support from members in both parties at times. Progressive Democrats want to limit special tax benefits and conservative Republicans want to get rates down.  

The big mistake would be to ignore the history of ObamaCare, Reagan/Rostenkowski and the recent efforts in this arena, and instead have the new president and the Republican Congress test their oats by trying to push through a one-party tax reform bill.  

Some enthused members of the new majority have suggested that reconciliation — an approach that requires only one-party support in the House and 51 votes in the Senate — should be used to drive a tax agenda.

This is, firstly, a difficult procedural road: The tax law would have to raise some money or essentially be revenue neutral to use the reconciliation mechanism.

Secondly, it would be self-defeating if history is any guide. An effective bill does not need a great many Democrats in support but it needs enough of them to avoid the appearance of a partisan cram-down.

With creative tax reform done in the corporate and personal arenas — along with improved tax treatment of overseas profits — the economy will explode, just as the president-elect has stated.

Growth of four percent is not only possible, it is likely.

President Trump will have succeeded and a true signature event will be in place.

"My Views" are works published by members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, but they do not necessarily reflect the views of all members of the Committee.