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Tax Deal Reached In '86, So Why Not Now?

Dec 15, 2012
Originally published on December 16, 2012 11:43 am
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As we watch U.S. congressional leaders lob charges back and forth during budget negotiations, some may wonder if there was once a time when politicians played nicely together.


SIMON: In October of 1986, Democrats and Republicans joined to pass a comprehensive tax reform bill and presented it to President Ronald Reagan.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: I'll be sitting at that desk, taking up a pen, and signing the most sweeping overhaul of tax code in our nation's history.

SIMON: But before he signed his name, President Reagan thanked leaders of both parties who reach the deal.

REAGAN: ...Dan Rostenkowski, Russell Long, John Duncan, majority leader Bob Dole, to Jack Kemp, Bob Kasten, Bill Bradley...

SIMON: New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, who couldn't actually make the signing ceremony; fog grounded his plane. We spoke with the former Democratic senator earlier this week, and asked him if that show of bipartisan congratulations made the deal seem easier to reach than it really was.

BILL BRADLEY: Actually it was quite easy because we had deep respect for each other as senators and legislators. I mean, once you get agreement on principles it's easy to then decide what's in and what's out.

SIMON: From the advantage of your experience, from the advantage of your perspective, do you think the modern Senate could pass something as big and bipartisan as that legislation?

BRADLEY: I don't know. If you're going to get major tax reform passed you need a number of things. One, you need presidential commitment. You need to have a Treasury secretary who can actually sit in a room and cut the deal at the end of the day, like Jim Baker did with me. You need to have a member - a chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and a chairman of the Finance Committee that see their political interests were served by pushing for tax reform against all the special interests that will oppose it.

And then you need one or two zealots - that's the role I played.


SIMON: Well, what role did you play?

BRADLEY: I talked about tax reform constantly for four years. It got so bad that my little daughter, at that age was about nine years old, I was on a TV program and I told her come on and stay. Watch daddy, he'll be on TV. She hit her little friend in the room and said, Come on, all he's going to talk about are loopholes. And for four years that's about all I did talk about.

SIMON: Senator Bradley, you're a Democrat, so is the president. How personally involved should the president get in negotiations, at one point or another?

BRADLEY: Well, it depends on his Treasury secretary. I mean, if you have a Treasury secretary that can cut the deal and knows the substance, then the president doesn't need to be that deeply involved. And the negotiations have to take place really kind of behind closed doors - can't be media. And frequently is the staff that really can craft it.

So, above all, in addition to the president or the leaders of two of the parties, you need to have staff members who command respect on the other side of the aisle. And therefore can find the areas of compromise.

SIMON: Senator Bradley, when you talk about conducting negotiations behind closed doors, is that practical in this day and age - when we have people tweeting and there's a 24-hour news cycle, where they need something to feed the machine?

BRADLEY: Sure, I think that politicians can have the discipline - believe it or not. And everybody knows in the room if one person's issue is leaked, it's dead. And the other person knows, therefore they're not going to leak it because they have their own issues they don't want leaked.

SIMON: Is the Senate a different place than when you served?

BRADLEY: Well, I don't know. I'm not in the Senate now. I think that I would look at Washington generally and say it's much more partisan. I think this is largely the result of the way we draw congressional district lines that reward the most extreme views of each party. 'Cause people are worried about challenges in their primaries, not about general election challenges because out of 435 congressional seats only 40 or 50 are competitive.

SIMON: Do you see any deal happening before the last minute?

BRADLEY: I think there'll be a deal on the broad outlines. It's impossible to do tax reform between now and the end of the year. But you can avoid the fiscal cliff by having agreement on broad principles, particularly on the top rate and on some of the spending cuts; and then put it off till March and give people a chance to do the work that legislators do.

SIMON: When you talk about a deal at the last minute, in your mind, does that mean in the next few days or on December 31st?

BRADLEY: Well...


BRADLEY: ...if history is any guide it means on December 31st.

SIMON: Senator, thanks so much for being with us.

BRADLEY: Thank you.

SIMON: Bill Bradley, former senator from New Jersey and the author most recently of "We Can All Do Better." He spoke with us from his office in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.