The Rise and Precipitous Fall of Serious Bipartisan Tax Reform

When Republican Dave Camp released his plan, observers on the left and right praised it. Then reality set in.
Gary Cameron/Reuters

The climate this year for significant policy accomplishment is as grim as it could be.

The objectives for Republicans were set early on by the schedule proposed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor: fewer than 90 days in session before the election (including many half days and pro-forma sessions—and that number may get smaller along the way), and more votes, now up to 50 overall, on repealing Obamacare. And there was the memo from the majority leader making it clear that anything that might divide Republicans heading into an election about the performance of the Obama administration is a nonstarter.

Democrats in Congress, who will be judged more by performance than Republicans, would love to have some signing ceremonies in legislative areas ranging from jobs and infrastructure to education, extension of unemployment benefits, and the minimum wage. This is true even though many Democrats might prefer to have a popular issue like the minimum wage to use against Republicans and counter the criticism of Obamacare.

This dynamic makes it even more interesting to see Dave Camp, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, come out with a bold and detailed tax-reform plan—not just a "framework" that ducks the tough questions—and to note Eric Cantor's pledge to come up with, and pass, a Republican alternative to Obamacare. Could it be that we are on the verge of a new age, one where meaningful, major substantive policy alternatives are on the table, ready for real debate on the battleground of ideas? And maybe even progress?

Nah.

It did look promising for tax reform at the start. Camp's draft plan started with extraordinarily positive responses (with caveats, of course) from prestigious individuals and groups on the left and the right. Washington Post columnist Steve Pearlstein and The Post editorial board, along with liberals Jonathan Chait and Matthew Yglesias, were complimentary, as were conservatives like Alex Brill, Ed Rogers, and Timothy Carney. There were quibbles about the details, but the fact that Camp had done what he set out to do—reduce tax rates, simplify the code, and keep the plan (at least for 10 years) revenue neutral, while also hitting the rich and major special interests to enable him to reduce the rates—was refreshing and admirable. Camp's plan also provided a terrific starting point for real debate and deliberation about major tax reform. In that sense, it reminded me of the Bradley-Gephardt plan in the mid-1980s that provided the framework for the 1986 tax reform.

But the enthusiasm for the effort and the framework that was expressed by editorial writers, intellectuals, and many journalists and tax analysts was not shared by the relevant pols. There was no enthusiasm shown by the Obama White House to engage Camp, leading Pearlstein to lament the loss of a great headline: "David Camp Heads to Camp David." There was no positive response from House or Senate Democrats. And then came the real kicker: Speaker John Boehner, a close ally of Camp's, reacted to his plan at a press conference by saying "Blah, blah, blah." Ouch.

The reaction by Democrats was in part a tribal reaction: If he is for it, we can't be. For many of them, Camp in other venues has been a hard-driving partisan, shutting out Democrats from actions on the committee (in sharp contrast from how Dan Rostenkowski treated Republicans during consideration of tax reform leading up to 1986.) Camp has vied with Darrell Issa in over-the-top partisan actions and rhetoric against the IRS. But even so, this was a serious plan with a lot for Democrats to like.

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Norm Ornstein is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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