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Mark Shields: Congressional Fight Over Tax Reform Needs One Really Smart Tiger

The Tax Reform Act of 1986 — which dramatically cut individual rates, lowering the top rate paid to 28 percent from 50 percent, while closing down nearly $200 billion in tax loopholes — stands unchallenged as the major domestic achievement of former President Ronald Reagans second term.

It was an unlikely breakthrough, considering that while Republicans then held the Senate, the House Democratic majority was led by the formidable partisan, Speaker Thomas Tip O’Neill, D-Mass.

More than a few seasoned observers of Congress are now optimistic, in spite of the political paralysis gripping the capital city, that the stars are again aligned some 28 years later, and Washington will once again surprise us all by passing real tax reform.

I cannot share that optimism, because I’m stuck on the iron rule of legislating: To win passage of any controversial initiative, you need not the passive endorsement of a hundred tabby cats, but the single-minded passion of one tiger. The congressional tabby cat will sign a letter to the president, issue a news release or even make a floor speech in support.

But the tiger is the congressman or senator who gets up every morning and thinks first about the three things he or she can do by 10 a.m., that afternoon and that evening to enlist popular backing and secure legislative victory.

In the drama of the 1986 Tax Reform win, many public figures played significant roles: Reagan; Treasury secretaries Donald Regan and Jim Baker; Baker’s deputy, Richard Darman; Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee; and the most atypical reformer of all, Chicago’s own Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee.

But when you ask people who were intimately involved in that extended political drama leading to the 1986 act who the one indispensable architect of that reform was, one name is offered: Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley, then a second-term senator from New Jersey and, before that, the Princeton — and later professional — basketball star and Rhodes scholar.

How had Bradley become the most celebrated college basketball player of his era? By steel will and steel discipline. That’s how. Lacking natural speed and jumping ability, young Bradley, throughout his high school years, practiced 3½ hours every day after school, eight hours every Saturday and three hours on Sundays. In his sneakers, he put 10-pound lead weights, and after setting up folding chairs on the gym floor, dribbled among them, wearing specially constructed glasses, which prevented him from seeing the floor.

To tax reform, Bradley brought the same tenacity, dedication and discipline. By the spring of 1982, he had designed his own tax reform plan, which eliminated most preferences and exemptions (a favorite of Democrats) and cut individual rates (a Republican cause), while simplifying the code and working to assure Americans of similar incomes paid taxes at similar rates.

He wrote The Fair Tax: At Last, a Proposal That Offers the Fair Tax to Every American!, a readable book on the subject. Even though he was out-of-shape, Bradley played basketball with younger House members to make his case.

Apprehensive that Bradley would persuade Reagan’s 1984 Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale, to run on tax reform, the White House sought to preempt the issue by naming a commission on reform to report by December 1984. Failing to convince Mondale, the relentless Bradley was instrumental in winning both Packwood and Rostenkowski to the cause. With clarity of purpose, exceptional intelligence and political skill, Bradley led, for more than five long years, the crusade for tax reform. He was the ultimate tiger.

As of today, there is no Bradley — no indispensable tiger — in this 2014 fight.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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