When the Democrats lost the White House in 1980, they also lost the Senate. For the first six years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, his party was in control of the upper chamber of Congress. In the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal, the Democrats won back control of the Senate during the 1986 midterm elections. So, why was Bill Bradley, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, the chief architect of Reagan’s 1986 tax reform?
There’s an involved and complex answer to that, but the short version is that Reagan knew that he couldn’t get tax reform at all unless he had buy-in from a lot of Democrats. Even though Bradley wasn’t even the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, he was an expert on tax policy and he’d been advocating for reforms for several years. So, Reagan and Bradley went to work, along with the chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, Dan Rostenkowski. They produced a mostly laudable bill and Reagan got a signature accomplishment during the worst year of his presidency when many thought he might be impeached.
If Donald Trump wants to do an infrastructure bill, he should follow Reagan’s example. At the very least, he should make the effort. His alternative is failure because the Republicans won’t move on infrastructure until they get tax reform, and they’re not going to get tax reform. Plus, whenever infrastructure does come up, it won’t be immune from a Democratic filibuster in the Senate, so Trump will need at least eight Democratic senators to sign off on the plan. To get that kind of buy-in, he’ll need more than to repair some hurt feelings. He’ll have to grant authorship to the Democrats.
And, frankly, between certain failure and letting the Democrats craft the bill, it should be as easy of a choice for Trump as it was for Reagan.
So, what could Trump do?
He could invite Senator Bill Nelson of Florida to the White House for discussions about what he and the Democrats would like to see in an infrastructure bill. Nelson serves as the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee which has jurisdiction over transportation. He could also invite Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. Booker is the ranking member of the Commerce Subcommittee on Surface Transportation. I’m sure Booker would be interested in getting the new rail tunnels completed that connect New Jersey to Manhattan.
Nelson and Booker would have incentives not to help, of course, but it would be hard to turn down the opportunity to get important things done for the country and their states and constituents. They’d have to negotiate with the Republicans in the House, too, who would be put out by having their leadership on the issue taken away from them. But Trump could make the case that they can’t produce for him on their own and he needs a win.
It would be a win for Trump if it happened, but also a win for the rest of us assuming that the bill would be worthwhile and addressed some of our most pressing infrastructure needs.
I can’t see Trump’s advisers giving this kind of advice, or even letting him know it’s an option. But maybe Trump will read this on his own and realize that there’s a way to make sure his name is mentioned in the same breath as Reagan, and not in a bad way.
There’s not much that I want to see Trump accomplish and I’m not interested in giving him easy wins, but this one thing I could sign off on.