- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

President Bush’s second term could produce some of the most positive changes in economic policy in generations — a renaissance empowering consumers and markets the same way the New Deal expanded government.

Reforming Social Security, fundamental tax changes, new free trade agreements and extending welfare reforms all hold the potential to enhance freedom, growth and prosperity.

While Mr. Bush deserves credit for demonstrating the political courage to put these critical reforms on the menu, congressional cooks will prepare the final banquet. And the hottest place in Congress’will be the two committees where jurisdiction on all these issues reside — the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee — ground zero for the president’s second term economic agenda. And for some obvious and less obvious reasons, these two panels are particularly well suited to accomplish these changes, and the White House knows how to let them do just that.

While no one received overtime pay, the two committees, led by Rep. Bill Thomas of California and Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, were legislative workhorses during the president’s first term, playing a major role in passing four tax cuts in as many years, international and other tax policy changes, several free trade bills and the Medicare prescription drug bill, to name a few. Experience counts. And few lawmakers and committees have moved as many complicated and controversial pieces of legislation through the process from beginning to end, including delicate final stage conference committee negotiations — an indication that the president’s economic agenda is in capable hands.

But next year might stretch these two venerable panels in unprecedented ways. While some congressional leaders might desire a more equitable division of responsibility to avoid the possibility of legislative bottlenecks, if lawmakers are addressing taxes, trade and Social Security, the Ways and Means and Finance Committees will be principal players.

But agenda overload is not completely new for these two committees. Earlier this year, as Congress was trying to adjourn for the elections and still pass popular middle-class tax cuts and the international corporate tax bills, both committees were stretched to the limit. “I sometimes thought they were going to have to clone Thomas and Grassley,” a longtime tax lobbyist told me.

Yet there is another reason to expect high-octane legislative production out of these panels — the 109th Congress will be Rep Bill Thomas’ last term as chairman. House rules limit chairmen to six years of service and 2005 and 2006 will be his last two leading the Ways and Means Committee. Senator Grassley just completed his first full two-year term, leaving him four more years in his six-year limit.

Timing is everything in politics and the next two years look like they are setting up for major action by Chairman Thomas. The president was re-elected, he called on Congress to do some major work within the jurisdiction of the Ways and Means Committee, congressional Republican majorities were returned and expanded, and this next Congress is Chairman Thomas’ swan song — giving him both the means and the motive to achieve legislative success. Many in Washington expect him to use a combination of his legislative prowess, institutional circumstances and a president committed to expending political capital as a number of major economic reforms. Many tax lobbyists and staff I talked to repeated a similar refrain: This is Chairman Thomas and the committee’s legacy too.

Finally, the White House will likely repeat a well-worn tactic — send lawmakers the principles, but let the committees write the details. The White House and Hill staff always debate about how much detail the president should include in his legislative proposals. The president’s policy people want to control all the details, but legislative experts recognize Congress needs flexibility to shape a final product.

But after four years of working with Congress this White House knows a little secret about legislative success: Don’t micromanage. “The White House will provide ‘principles’ on all these legislative proposals,” a GOP leadership aide told me. “The system works best if Congress fills in the details.” The stars are aligning for major economic reforms in the next Congress. Mr. Bush set his sights on major tax, trade and Social Security initiatives. Fortunately for the president, those responsible for enacting these changes are motivated, experienced and politically positioned to accommodate him.

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