Thursday, August 12, 2010

Politics: On Rostenkowski

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Former Illinois Representative Dan Rostenkowski died yesterday at the age of 82. The long-time chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, the main tax writing body, he is probably best known for a scandal that in which he eventually pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud and served 17 months in prison. However, when I think of Rostenkowski, the Chicago Democrat, what I most remember is his forthrightness about taxes and his ability to work on a bipartisan basis, something that seems impossible today.

In one of his most iconic moments, Rostenkowski stated on CBS' Face the Nation in 1989 that he was "not in favor of any tax decreases. I'm in favor of increasing taxes, because I believe that is fundamentally what needs to be done." Imagine even a Democrat saying that today! The interview resulted in one of my all-time favorite Charles Osgood verses:
Rostenkowski faced the nation,
He was forthright as can be,
How the nation faces Rostenkowski,
We'll just have to see.
As it would turn out, taxes were increased in that budgetary cycle. Republican President George H.W. Bush worked with Congressional Democrats to come up with a way to reduce the deficit that involved some tax increases. The decision is regarded by most economists as a fundamentally sound one, yet despite that, Bush was crucified for breaking the "no new taxes" pledge from his 1988 campaign. Rostenkowski had argued with the President that he should "spend some of his popularity" on economic policy, but Bush spent more than he had. Rather than blaming Rostenkowski or the Democrats for the taxes, Bush received the blame and lost the Presidency to Bill Clinton in 1992. Rostenkowski would be indicted that same year, and would lose his re-election bid in 1994.

It's hard to imagine that world today. Now, in the United States, not even the Democrats seriously contemplate the kind of tax increases that a Republican president supported in 1989. The two parties barely speak to one another; cutting deals like the one seen in 1989 is not a serious possibility. Dan Rostenkowski was definitely from another era, and I daresay that the political environment in that era was much healthier than the one that exists today.

No comments: