- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 14, 2004

In his postelection press conference, President Bush laid out an extremely ambitious second-term agenda. He promised to reform Social Security, the tax system, the budget process and medical liability. These must all be done while waging an expensive and time-consuming war on top of all else a president must do, such as get appropriations bills passed.

As a practical matter, I do not see how Mr. Bush can do tax reform and Social Security at the same time. It will probably take four years of concerted effort to resolve just one of these matters, given the protracted nature of congressional deliberations on such issues. And Mr. Bush does not have the luxury of letting things slide into another term, because he is in his last. Unless he wants his efforts to die or see his successor get the credit, Mr. Bush must narrow his priorities.

It is true Mr. Bush has a Republican Congress, which will ease his path in some respects. But he would be mistaken to ignore Democrats completely. For one thing, they are not powerless, especially in the Senate, where they can use filibusters and parliamentary procedures to slow legislation to a crawl. More importantly, major reforms need bipartisan support if they are to be considered legitimate and have some permanence.

Although Mr. Bush often spoke of his desire to reform taxes and Social Security, his statements have been exceedingly vague, almost meaninglessly so. After all, who opposes reform in principle? It’s only when specific proposals are considered and details studied that things get contentious.

As it stands, we don’t know if Mr. Bush favors a flat rate tax, a national retail sales tax or some simplification that may or may not require basic tax restructuring. For example, we could exempt most taxpayers from filing returns — a meaningful simplification — without changing our basic tax structure.

On Social Security, Mr. Bush has been equally vague. He asked a commission to study the subject early in 2001. It issued a report that December. But Mr. Bush never embraced the report nor chose among the alternative proposals it presented.

Comments by Mr. Bush and his aides indicate they believe he has a “mandate” to act on tax and Social Security reform. However, long experience shows that unless a president has campaigned on something fairly specific, Congress can easily ignore his mandate, chalking it up to personal popularity or some factor unrelated to policy. Party control doesn’t really matter. Remember that, though Bill Clinton talked about health care reform in 1992, a Democratic Congress ultimately rejected his proposal, partly because it wasn’t fleshed out until after he took office. Congress had no reason to believe those who voted for Mr. Clinton voted for that particular plan.

I think Mr. Bush needs to decide between tax reform and Social Security reform if he wants something enacted before he leaves office. If he does decide, I think he will have to choose tax reform. While Social Security reform is desirable, there is no compelling reason to act hastily. The situation there will remain pretty much the same for years to come.

By contrast, the tax system is under severe pressure. Expiring provisions must either be made permanent or excised from the code. The Alternative Minimum Tax demands a permanent fix, and something desperately needs to be done to help the Internal Revenue Service administer a tax system both increasingly incomprehensible and too easily evaded.

I also believe, sooner or later, Mr. Bush will be forced to deal meaningfully with the budget deficit and that higher revenues will have to be part of a budget agreement. He has said publicly he sees no need for higher revenues. But I believe financial markets will force Mr. Bush to act as they did Mr. Reagan.

Mr. Bush has also said that, were higher revenues needed, he would deal with that apart from any tax reform initiative. Again, I think he will be forced to reconsider when he realizes tax reform necessarily involves raising taxes to pay for tax cuts.

Finally, Mr. Bush should not underestimate how rapidly his power will dissipate as he nears the end of his presidency. Nor should he underestimate the extent to which unexpected events — such as several Supreme Court vacancies or deterioration of the Iraq situation — can push everything else off the table. This also argues for narrowing his agenda to things most needed that have the highest chance of success.

Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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