by Donald Wolfensberger

"I didn't know much about the tax code when I took over the House Ways and Means Committee, but I had good staff experts that could draft the legislation, and I knew what I wanted to do and how to do it," asserted Dan Rostenkowski at a seminar held at the Wilson Center on November 12. Rostenkowski acknowledged Ronald Reagan's crucial role in getting the tax legislation passed in the mid-1980s. "There were a lot of wakes for the 1986 tax reform but no funerals," Rostenkowski said, "thanks in part to the President's intervention at critical junctures" and to his "tunnel vision."

Charls E. Walker, a top Washington tax lobbyist in 1986, reminisced on four decades of presidents he had worked with -- both inside government and out -- commenting on the extent to which their personalities made a difference in getting things done in the Congress. He also credited Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood with helping to salvage the 1986 tax bill when it appeared to be all but a lost cause in the Senate.

Journalist Jeffrey Birnbaum said that personality and politics are a matter of who has control, and Washington is filled with "control freaks" who want to believe that they are in charge when in fact the American government was conceived in such a way that no one has overall control -- known as checks and balances. Birnbaum is co-author of Showdown at Gucci Gulch: Lawmakers, Lobbyists, and the Unlikely Triumph of Tax Reform , an account of the politics behind the 1986 tax bill. With reference to that bill, Birnbaum said that Rostenkowski had dispersed power in a clever way to ensure that he had the backing of his committee on such a major tax reform effort. Rostenkowski also put together a coalition of top corporations in favor of tax reform, which effectively split the business community.

Political scientist Randall Strahan shifted the focus of the discussion to former House speaker Newt Gingrich and the Republicans' 1995 tax bill that was part of their "Contract With America". Strahan argued that Gingrich had been more interested in tax politics than in tax policy; indeed, the former speaker has always described himself as a political, rather than a legislative, leader. Accordingly, he intervened in the legistlative process only at appropriate moments -- to keep the tax bill on track and true to promises made to the Christian Coalition, to ensure the child tax credit.

Strahan noted that Gingrich drew on military leaders and business executives for his leadership model rather than on legislative leaders of the past. Gingrich's larger push, though, was for a balanced budget. This was not in the original Contract With America, but he saw it as essential to defining national governance in 1995. He succeeded both in bringing President Clinton around to concept and in shifting the national policy debate. Gingrich's personal leadership style and commitment made a difference, according to Strahan's careful analysis.