Birnbaum and Murray — two Wall Street Journal reporters — wrote this book just after Congress passed the 1986 Tax Reform Act. The Washington Post’s political reporter said it “reads like a thriller, which it is, with a remarkable cast of characters and a payoff in billions”. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but it was interesting and informative.
Birnbaum and Murray narrate the history of the tax reform effort, starting with Senator Bill Bradley’s initial doomed efforts. From there, we move to Reagan’s desire to dramatically lower tax rates and (House Ways and Means Committee) Chairman Rostenkowski’s desire to eliminate hundreds of tax loopholes. No one else really wanted tax reform.
How did we get tax reform? The authors walk us through it one roadblock at a time. Treasury Secretary Don Regan wanted the credit for pushing forward one of Reagan’s major goals. Chief of Staff Jim Baker wanted to loyally carry out the President’s requests. Chairman Packwood (of the Senate Finance Committee) wanted to win re-election and wanted to avoid being seen as an enemy of tax reform. The tax reform effort almost died three or four times during its three year incubation. Although it was the bill that no one wanted, it was also the bill that no one wanted to publicly oppose.
I learned a lot while reading this book. I was surprised by how uninvolved President Reagan was in the details of the bill. I was surprised by how many Republicans wanted to bury the bill and how many Democrats supported it. I reconfirmed my own lack of faith in government as I saw just how many “special interests” (and Congressman and Senators) fought for the survival of their own specific tax breaks (loopholes) in defiance of the common good.
This would make a great book for any high school civics class. Students would learn far more about how our government works (or doesn’t) from this one book than they would from any number of Schoolhouse Rock videos. You might be surprised at how few people are involved in writing large, complex bills. You might be surprised at how much power the White House staff exercises independent of the President himself.
This book was interesting enough to be engaging and educational enough to be a valuable resource on the way American government really works.