For two years, Senators Ron Wyden and Judd Gregg met almost every week to talk about taxes. The exuberant, indefatigable Democrat from Oregon and the dour, taciturn Republican from New Hampshire made an odd couple. But they shared a singular, nerdy passion for wanting to overhaul the tax code and their lengthy negotiations ultimately resulted in the Bipartisan Tax Fairness and Simplification Act they introduced in 2010.
Gregg, who left the Senate that same year, describes Wyden as “somebody who has relentless optimism.” There were many substantive disagreements between them along the way as they tried to hash out the details of the plan, and Gregg recalls, “On numerous occasions I gave up on the process but he (Wyden) would track me down on the floor or in an elevator and insist we keep at it.”
Their plan to simplify the tax code, reduce corporate and personal rates and eliminate many exemptions and write-offs didn’t have much chance of being enacted, but both men thought it was worth the effort. “We enjoyed it because it was so tough,” says Wyden.
“Something like that takes a long time, it’s like a cork floating to the surface of the ocean,” Gregg says.
That same year President Obama created the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform co-chaired by former GOP Senator Alan Simpson and Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles to come up with a bipartisan “grand bargain” for tax and entitlement reform. The plan, though widely discussed, didn’t go very far either. But Gregg, a member of the commission who voted in favor of its final report, says a lot of its ideas came from his and Wyden’s tax plan and will be the basis for future discussions.
While a grand bargain is extremely unlikely, Wyden intends to keep pushing for piecemeal reform. After years as an earnest, wonky backbencher toiling on seemingly impossible legislative quests, Wyden as the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee will now have a seat at the table when big decisions are made.
The Finance Committee is the most consequential and powerful committee in the Senate with far-reaching jurisdiction over tax, trade, and health care issues affecting every American, and it provides a huge platform for Wyden’s ideas along with the staff and resources to implement them.
“I’ve had these tax reform bills for a decade. We’ve put some sweat equity into this,” Wyden told me the day he formally took over the chairmanship just before the Senate adjourned for its President’s Day recess. “I come to play every day. I’m going to be looking for activist opportunities that have a strong bipartisan coalition behind them… This is the go-to place for tackling big things.”
Wyden is popular with GOP colleagues for his collegiality, work ethic and willingness to include their ideas in legislation. “At his core he is very liberal but he’s also willing to go across the aisle and be bipartisan which is what you have to do to get anything done and really govern,” asserts Gregg.
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