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Can the White House drive the tax reform train? History says no

Republican and Democratic veterans of Washington’s messy policymaking process have a vehement response to the idea that the White House, fresh from its failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, will take the lead on drafting legislation to reform the nation’s tax system: good luck with that.

Traditionally, the White House has stumbled when trying to craft major new legislation. Writing laws is, after all, what Congress gets paid to do — and lawmakers don’t like being big-footed by staffers at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., even when they come from the same party.

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“I really can’t think of a consequential piece of legislation written in the White House in decades,” Democratic former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle told POLITICO. “You’ve got to have legislators at the table. Legislators have to feel invested. If they’re not invested they have no stake in the game. They have no real reason to be cooperative or supportive, other than the issue itself. I think it’s a huge mistake to drive any legislative effort solely from the White House.”

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said earlier this week that President Donald Trump is “driving the train” on tax reform, a move that goes against the grain of recent history. The most recent examples that White House and legislative affairs veterans could recall in which bills with significant presidential input ended up being signed into law included the George W. Bush-era PATRIOT Act after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the related bill creating the Department of Homeland Security, as well as President Barack Obama’s Trade Promotion Authority in 2015.

Some of the biggest legislative accomplishments over the past three decades that advanced with significant help from a president — Ronald Reagan’s 1986 tax reforms; George H.W. Bush’s 1990 budget bill; No Child Left Behind in 2001; the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009; and the Affordable Care Act in 2010 — actually originated from key legislative committees or congressional leadership circles.

“I tend to think the more specific you are the more likely you are to fail because it gives everyone something to shoot at,” said a former senior aide in the George W. Bush White House. On tax reform, the GOP staffer warned that going public with details means “some group somewhere will find something saying they can’t live with it.”

Kevin Brady

One of Trump’s biggest challenges: He’s working with a GOP-led House and Senate dominated by members who were elected under Obama, and who are more familiar with finding ways to tank major initiatives than with getting on board.

Several leading lawmakers told POLITICO the Trump White House would be smart to keep its powder dry on the details.

“I don’t think they should” release legislative text, said Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, a legislative veteran. “What they better do is just work with the people in the Senate Finance Committee like me and people in the Ways and Means Committee, work as a collegial group, to see what can be done.”

Another member of the tax-writing Finance panel, North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr, concurred: “Every White House has written legislation themselves. But they’ve never gotten us to pass their bills.”

Democrats smarting from the president’s blustery rhetoric and early policy moves on everything from immigration to climate change also said they’d rather have Trump butt out as Congress develops his big initiatives.

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Rep. Richard Neal, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said Trump would be better off leaving the details of tax reform to Congress, especially when the executive branch remains short-handed without senior officials confirmed at Treasury and other key agencies. “I don’t think the executive branch can drive tax reform,” the Massachusetts lawmaker said. “Many of us have spent careers working on this stuff.”

White House aides did not respond to questions seeking to clarify whether Trump intended to write bill text that lawmakers would be asked to work from, or if the president would instead offer a loose set of legislative principles.

House Speaker Paul Ryan has long dreamed of passing a major overhaul of the nation’s corporate tax system, and some senior lawmakers and GOP aides said this week that they welcome a White House push if it means turning decades of talk on such a complicated issue into progress.

Yet Ryan and others in the House GOP leadership are waiting for a clearer signal from the Trump White House and its Treasury Department on what it wants out of a tax package, and they’re especially interested in hearing the president take a position on a controversial Republican proposal to tax imports and exempt exports, also called the border adjustment tax.

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“We think this is great,” a House GOP leadership aide said in response to a question about Spicer’s “driving the train” pledge for tax reform. “We need to be working together with presidential push if we’re going to get it done.”

Trump’s recent health care defeat has also opened the door to suggestions he could make progress on another one of his big-ticket priorities — infrastructure — by working with Democrats on a bill that kick-starts repairs for the country’s roads, bridges and airports. Sen. Tim Kaine, the Virginia Democrat and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate, said White House leadership on the issue could pay off if it responds by incorporating some of the ideas his party has already sent to the president.

“Driving the train is great, but hopefully listening to others while you’re driving the train, that’d be even better,” Kaine told POLITICO. “We’ve given ideas. If they really want to work together, we’ll see some of those ideas in a proposal he might make.”

Starting with a clear outline from Trump might also help limit the influence of special interests on the Hill. “I believe any real meaningful tax reform is going to be a long, hard struggle, process-wise,” Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain said in an interview. “Every lobbyist on Earth is going to be descending on this town. It’ll be a lobbyist bonanza.”

For now, there’s no formal schedule for votes, though a top Republican aide said a House Ways and Means Committee markup on the issue could start in May.

Trump officials are reportedly considering pairing infrastructure and a tax overhaul together — something that’s long been suggested in policy circles.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the chamber’s No. 3 Republican leader, said this week he thinks that approach represented the “best path” forward for both bills. In addition, he said the president’s bully pulpit would be especially beneficial for the progress in the more conservative House.

“Right now the echo chamber for what they’re trying to do I don’t think is big enough,” Thune said. “I think it’d be helpful actually for the House for the White House to be more engaged.”

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Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories

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