Lately, Hillary Clinton and her supporters have been criticizing Bernie Sanders’s proposals not so much because they are wrongheaded, but because they are too utopian to pass Congress. I find this to be a curious line of attack because, in effect, Clinton is playing by Republican rules—saying that Democrats should only propose things that could be enacted by a Republican Congress.
Economists would call this an example of static analysis, assuming that circumstances will not change or that leadership is incapable of altering political possibilities. If Republicans had held this same point of view, Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax cut never would have been enacted and, very likely, they would never have gained control of Congress. The 1981 tax cut fundamentally altered political dynamics.
This was not a result that anyone would have predicted when the Reagan tax cut was first conceived by Representative Jack Kemp of New York in 1977. At the time, he was a junior congressman much better known for his career in professional football than for his legislative accomplishments, which were modest.
In those days, seniority was the principal determinant of legislative success. Junior members of Congress were expected to defer to their elders. Additionally, the committee system was very powerful. Those wishing to enact a bill needed to go through the members of the relevant committee and get their blessing before congressional action was even contemplated. If the chairman or ranking member of the committee of jurisdiction turned thumbs down on a legislative idea, it was pretty much dead.