Tax Analysts Blog

Planned Disasters Are Here to Stay – and Probably the Only Hope for Tax Reform

Posted on Jan 6, 2015

Congress returns to Washington today, and Republicans have a chance to strut their stuff as the Capitol’s new majority party. But the GOP ascendancy raises a question: Can Republicans actually govern without a crisis?

Jamelle Bouie asked that question in Slate recently and offered a sobering recollection. “The last time Republicans had political momentum, after the 2010 elections, they plunged the United States into a year of crisis governance,” he wrote, “including a threat to default on the debt if they didn’t get concessions on spending cuts.”

Republican leaders are keen to allay any fears about the party’s capacity to govern (as opposed to simply obstruct). “I don’t want the American people to think that if they add a Republican president to a Republican Congress, that’s going to be a scary outcome,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a recent Washington Post interview. “I want the American people to be comfortable with the fact that the Republican House and Senate is a responsible, right-of-center, governing majority.”

But what does “governing” mean to a right-of center congressional majority? And more specifically, what does it mean when the White House is occupied by a left-of-center president? (I recognize that some observers, like Bruce Bartlett, will object to calling Obama left of center.)

If history is any guide, divided government will continue to produce more crisis governance, not less. Indeed, the prospects for a calm, deliberative legislative process are almost nil.

It’s tempting to say that crisis governance is the new normal in Washington. Except that it’s not new. Nor is it an invention of the GOP. Rather, our political addiction to urgency is a bipartisan creation that stretches back decades, if not centuries.

In some respects, Congress pioneered the politics of planned disasters in the 1980s, when lawmakers dreamed up the gimmickry of Gramm-Rudman. But crisis governance was already old in 1985. The federal debt ceiling, for instance, has been manipulated for political gain since the 1950s. (And back then, it was a conservative Democrat holding the gun to the head of a Republican president.)

Both parties have used crises to grease the skids for compromise. But these days, Republicans may be more dependent on high-wire legislating than their Democratic colleagues. As the party of limited government, Republicans are inherently less interested in successful legislation than their counterparts across the aisle. For right-wing lawmakers, the failure to meet a deadline or defuse a crisis can seem like an opportunity, not a disaster.

Presumably, the Republican leadership is guided by more traditional notions of governing. Thoughtful conservatives – who are plentiful in Washington but remarkably scarce in Congress – understand that government must actually do something. Less is not always more, even for conservatives. At least when it comes to persistent problems like healthcare provision and middle-class wage stagnation.

But Republican leaders will have their hands full managing their less-thoughtful party colleagues. Even planned disasters – like the debt ceiling extension coming later this year, as well as a more permanent fix for the Highway Trust Fund – may prove inadequate to the task of taming an unruly right wing.

And Republican leaders will have an especially hard time moving any sort of important but non-urgent legislation. Like tax reform, for instance.

Say what you will about the flight of American businesses to lower-tax jurisdictions, it’s no crisis. At least not in any meaningful legislative sense. And yet, tax reform will require exactly the sort of compromise – both between the parties and within the Republican Party – that has proven so elusive in recent years.

In general, I'm a pessimist about the likelihood of tax reform, even under the best of circumstances. But if it’s ever going to happen, it probably won’t look like tax reform did in 1986, when lawmakers managed to harness partisan impulses for high-minded purposes. There was no crisis in 1986, but that episode was the exception, not the rule, when it comes to the history of ambitious, durable tax reform.

All in all, it seems likely that the new GOP majority will need to gin up some potent crises if they hope to get anything done over the next two years. The real question, in fact, is not whether Congress will continue to feed its addiction to urgency, but whether the planned disasters currently on the books are real enough – and scary enough.

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