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'Fiscal cliff' or not, tax reform is easier said than done

As part of any deal on the 'fiscal cliff,' Congress will likely take up comprehensive tax reform. That's a worthy goal, but it will involve more political and economic pain than most would like to admit. Every line in the tax code has its own constituency and rationale.

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The bill had a wild ride through Capitol Hill. At one point, House Republicans almost derailed it through a procedural maneuver, and it took personal lobbying by President Reagan to put it back on track. The bill’s supporters were lucky that its opponents never got together.

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Treasury official Richard Darman told reporters Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Alan S. Murray, “[I]f I were a lobbyist, I would stand in the hallway with a big sign saying: EVERYONE INTERESTED IN KILLING THIS BILL, PLEASE MEET IN THE NEXT CORRIDOR. There would have been an enormous rush, and they would have seen the power of their collective action.”

Conditions for passage are less favorable today. Lobbyists have become adept at collective action to beat legislation, while political polarization has made it harder for Republicans and Democrats to join in passing anything at all.

Why do so many lawmakers think that they can enact a tax reform bill in 2013? One reason is that so few of them experienced how arduous the last one was. Of 435 lawmakers who will sit in the House next year, only 21 were serving in 1986. Those 21 do not include Speaker John Boehner, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, or any GOP member of the Ways and Means Committee.

The 100-member Senate will have a somewhat larger fraction of 1986 veterans: 11 who were in the Senate at the time, 10 who were in the House. Majority leader Harry Reid and Minority leader Mitch McConnell were on Capitol Hill in 1986, but did not play major roles in the tax drama.

Lawmakers who back tax reform should speak with those who went through the 1986 debate. They should also study histories of the legislation, including the excellent book, “Showdown at Gucci Gulch,” by Mr. Birnbaum and Mr. Murray. Then they should fasten their seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy year.

John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. He is coauthor of “American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship.”


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