- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Ronald Reagan stood for big ideas in a shrinking world. He was the captain of the ship of state, boldly manning the rudder, but leaving the smaller decisions to a trusted crew.

Whether comforting a nation after the Challenger disaster, urging America to keep reaching for the stars because our astronauts were in a better place having “slipped the surly bonds of earth,” or givinganew voice to the Boys of Pointe du Hoc, 20 years ago, formerPresident Reagan always advocated causes larger than himself. And, as he stood tall, he beckoned others to perch on his shoulders to catch their own glimpse of the “shining city on a hill.”

Mr. Reagan’s legislative genius drew upon these same principles — he didn’t sweat the small stuff, keeping focused on a few transcendent causes. This was a refreshing change for lawmakers, who struggled with the micro-managerial style of Jimmy Carter, who tinkered the legislative process — and his effectiveness — to death.

The 1981 spring budget offensive was one of Mr. Reagan’s biggest ideas. After passing the general budget framework on May 7, with a strong bipartisan vote (63 Democrats voted for the so-called Gramm-Latta substitute budget), Congress was headed for a showdown with the president.

According to Don Wolfensberger, who worked for then-House Minority Whip Trent Lott, the budget directed 14 Senate and 15 House committees to report back the $36 billion in spending cuts in a new piece of legislation for a second vote (a so-called budget reconciliation bill implementing the savings with specific changes in law). Democrats controlled the House, and the version their committee chairs reported back “did not measure up to the savings the administration expected and this led to the fashioning of Gramm-Latta II, a substitute reconciliation package of budget cuts,” according to Mr. Wolfensberger.

Yet the Democrats, playing games with the process, divided Gramm-Latta II into parts, calling for three separate floor votes. This infuriated the Republicans and their allies, who saw it as complicating a simple request from the president — one up or down vote on a bill to cut spending.

Republicans defeated the Democratic leadership proposal first by a 217/210 vote (with 31 Democrats voting with the president and the Republicans). Next, lawmakers adopted Gramm-Latta II by a vote of 216-212 (27 Democrats voted with the Republicans) — encapsulating the guts of Mr. Reagan’s economic program in one vote.

Indeed, lawmakers did fill Gramm-Latta II with small stuff — programs, grants and other pieces of pork that no doubt lubricated its passage. The final version was so unedited that copies included changes literally written in the margins by staff, including their names and phone numbers. Yet, these smaller issues did not distract Mr. Reagan, who wanted to change the direction of overall federal spending and taxation, not worrying if a congressional district in Michigan received a federally funded weather station.

Mr. Reagan took a typical big-picture approach in response to the House action. In a June 25, 1981, speech in Los Angeles, he said: “To those who say we can’t cut spending, lower taxes and, yes, rebuild the defenses we need in this dangerous world, I have a six- word answer: Yes we can, and yes we must.”

Gramm-Latta II was a major blow to the Washington status quo. I was a graduate student in Chicago closely following these developments and called a young Democratic staffer near the end of the vote. She put me on hold before the final gavel fell and then came back minutes later in tears. “Oh my God,” she said. “They won. He won. Reagan won! How could this be?”

Nurturing a few big ideas was Ronald Reagan’s secret of legislative success. Political scientist Lyn Ragsdale reports most presidents present a long laundry list of “requests” to Congress every year in the State of the Union address. Not Mr. Reagan. He made the fewest requests of any president from Harry Truman through Bill Clinton, yet his entreaties were robust. (He made eight major requests in his 1981 State of the Union concerning the budget, taxes, regulation and defense. Other presidents asked for 20 or more initiatives, according to Ms. Ragsdale.)

Change in Washington is normally glacially slow, frustrating even patient advocates. Yet big reforms can sometimes happen fast. Ronald Reagan knew the secret of political success: Powerful ideas — and their political patrons — are weakened when encumbered with the small stuff. Washington forces tried to lure him into the mundane — badgering him to join them in the weeds. Yet he knew it was no vice to focus on a few big things.

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