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Encore: Lessons In Bipartisanship

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Senate Republicans are moving closer this week to a vote on their tax bill. The effort looks a lot different than another time Congress really took on taxes. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 was a real moment of bipartisanship.

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WERTHEIMER: I was there when it passed, and so was Professor Ron. You know him as NPR's senior Washington editor and correspondent, Ron Elving.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: They said it couldn't be done, and they were usually right. Reforming the tax laws was just too hard. But President Ronald Reagan made it one of his priorities.

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RONALD REAGAN: I'd like to speak to you tonight about our future, about a great historic effort to give the words freedom, fairness and hope new meaning and power for every man and woman in America. Specifically, I want to talk about taxes.

ELVING: Personal tax rates could be as high as 50 percent in 1985 when Reagan gave that speech. That tax code was also shot through with loopholes for big business and favored industries from real estate and construction to energy and agriculture. And Reagan, a Republican, found allies in both parties.

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WERTHEIMER: A group of the capital's most glamorous young leaders is leading the tax charge.

ELVING: That's NPR's Linda Wertheimer, who was covering Congress at the time.

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WERTHEIMER: The democratic fair tax is sponsored by Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri.

ELVING: Bradley, in particular, emerged as a key figure on the Democratic side.

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BILL BRADLEY: Tax simplification is not an issue that lends itself to the traditional labels. It's not Republican or Democrat. It's not liberal or conservative.

ELVING: Bradley said it was all about one big tradeoff - lowering the tax rates for the many while eliminating a lot of the tax shelters and write-offs for a few.

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BRADLEY: It simply isn't fair to burden tens of millions of American taxpayers with needlessly high tax rates so that the narrow special interests can retain their favorite loophole.

ELVING: Bradley was best known for his years as a pro basketball player with the New York Knicks. But he was also a policy wonk of the first order. He used both skills to get colleagues in both parties onboard, playing pickup games in both the House and Senate gyms so he could talk about policy in the locker room.

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ELVING: All through 1985 and '86, high-powered lobbyists swarmed the Hill and filled the committee rooms, most of them intent on protecting previsions.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Committee will come to order. This afternoon, the committee begins two days of hearings during which we will hear from major business groups.

ELVING: Weeks of committee work in both the House and Senate led to bills that looked a lot like the status quo. But in the spring of 1986, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, a Republican from Oregon named Bob Packwood, decided to try a new approach.

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BOB EDWARDS: This is Morning Edition. I'm Bob Edwards. Members of the Senate Finance Committee anticipate a battle today over a radical revision of the nation's tax code.

ELVING: Packwood wanted to lower rates into the 20s and go after even some of the most popular deductions. And that's when the bipartisanship really kicked in.

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ELVING: Packwood and Bradley got a small group of Republicans and Democrats to strategize together and defend the bill on the Senate floor. They knew both parties would introduce tempting amendments that would weaken the bill. As a Senate staffer watching those debates from a couch on the chamber floor, I could hear the senators agonize over votes they knew might come back to haunt them.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Question is on final passage.

ELVING: But they stuck together.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeas, nays have been ordered. The clerk will call the roll.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Mr. Adner (ph), Mr. Andrews...

ELVING: The Senate passed the bill.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: On this vote, there are 97 ayes, three nays. H.R.3838 is declared passed.

ELVING: And after a last round of negotiations with the House, the final bill was signed into law by President Reagan.

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REAGAN: Flatter rates will mean more reward for that extra effort. And vanishing loopholes and a minimum tax will mean that everybody and every corporation pay their fair share.

WERTHEIMER: As you could tell from the overwhelming vote by which the 1986 tax bill passed the Senate, the many hours of hearings, discussions and debates got results. But that was then. Now that kind of bipartisan cooperation just doesn't happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1ST MICHIGAN COLONIAL FIFE AND DRUM CORPS' "WASHINGTON'S ARTILLERY MARCH MEDLEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.