In his post-election 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. And these things must all be done while conducting an expensive and time-consuming war on top of all the other things a president has to do, such as getting appropriations bills passed.
As a practical matter, I do not see how 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, given the protracted nature of congressional deliberations on such issues. And Bush does not have the luxury of letting things slide over into another term because he is in his last. Unless he wants his efforts to die or see his successor get the credit, Bush will have to narrow his priorities.
It is true that Bush has a Republican Congress, which will ease his path in some respects. But he would be making a mistake 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 really need bipartisan support if they are to be considered legitimate and have some degree of permanence.
Although Bush talked frequently about his desire to reform taxes and Social Security, his statements have been exceedingly vague, almost to the point of meaninglessness. After all, who opposes reform in principle? It's only when people have to consider specific proposals and can study their details that things get contentious.
As it stands, we don't know if Bush favors a flat rate tax, a national retail sales tax, or some sort of simplification that may or may not require fundamental tax restructuring. For example, we could exempt the bulk of taxpayers from filing returns -- a meaningful simplification -- without changing our basic tax structure.
On Social Security, Bush has been equally vague. He asked a commission to study the subject early in 2001, and it issued a report in December of that year. But Bush never embraced the report nor chose among the alternative proposals it presented.
Comments by Bush and his aides indicate their belief that 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 other factor unrelated to policy.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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