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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Pat Moynihan

The Sensible Center

The late, great Senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was asked back in 1993, when Congress was debating an earlier federal budget deal, if there “would be a fight until death” over taxes.

Moynihan, intellect and wit in full flower, came back at NBC’s Tim Russert: “Fight until death over taxes? Oh no. Women, country, God, things like that. Taxes? No.”

We may see a grand deal struck this weekend in the long running Washington drama over taxes, spending and debt and it is a safe bet no one will fight until death, even if the rhetoric makes all of what has been going on in the nation’s capitol sound like Armageddon. A deal must be struck. The only Armageddon here would be the shape of national and world economy should the United States of America default on its debt, even for a little while.

No death, just some taxes.

The “big deal” in Washington has never been easy. Our tight system of checks and balances is designed to make it hard, messy and slow. In 1937, Franklin Roosevelt proposed enlarging the U.S. Supreme Court. The morning he rolled out his plan, and FDR was at the very zenith of his popularity at the time, many fellow Democrats declared the plan DOA. It took months of hearings, speeches, efforts at compromise, fights and feuds before Roosevelt’s blunder was disposed of by the Congress. These things take time.

I’m going to guess that the final features of the deal now being hammered out will strike most of the participants as vaguely surreal when the deal is done. They may well ask themselves and each other: how was this possible?

The Oregonian’s Steve Duin talked over a year ago to former Sen. Bob Packwood who had a major role in engineering the historic 1986 tax reform deal. Ronald Reagan was in the White House then, Republicans ran the Senate and the House was Democratic. It’s worth reading the piece to see how a deal got done back then, admittedly when the Senate was a decidedly more civil place, but also to appreciate that the Washington deal always involves a lot of sausage making.

As Duin wrote: “While those [Finance] committee meetings were high theater, the true wheeling and dealing occurred behind closed doors. The standard deduction was increased, preferential treatment for capital gains eliminated. The deduction for state and local taxes ended, the corporate tax rate lowered.

“All of this,” Packwood reminds Duin, “we’re doing in the back room. We’re not doing this in the daylight at all.

“People are willing to give things up for the good of the country if they’re not going to be hauled over the rack right away.”

The Washington deal, as the late Pat Moynihan knew, as Bob Packwood knows, takes time and doesn’t involve threats of death. It does involve at least a few good people willing to give things up for the good of the country.

I think – I fervently hope – the Congress and the President get a deal done that really is good for the country. I have a sneaking hunch the great majority of Americans will embrace such a deal. They want our leaders to lead the country forward not into a fight until death.

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