Rep. Charles Rangel, D-NY, tried again and again to force through his client’s bill that hurt middle class Americans. My former colleague from New York kept cozying up to President Bill Clinton, which went almost unnoticed by the media. In those years Rangel showed us many things—intense ambition and arrogance, bad judgment and relentless self-promotion, but one thing more —when it came to American tax law he was a committed progressive who despite his years as a high ranking member of Congress, refused to compromise.”
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-NY, who passed away Monday at age 84, was part of what we said we wanted to see in our lawmakers — a pragmatic member who would be pragmatic about the legislative process and who recognized the need to find solutions that would not hurt middle class Americans and who also understood the need to expand access to education.
In the year 1976, when I served in the House of Representatives, we passed a big economic package called the Economic Recovery Act. The bill, for the first time in history, added broad tax relief to the middle class. But the Speaker of the House chose not to proceed with the legislation and many of his fellow members thought it should wait until President Jimmy Carter was elected. But as Ralph Reed has written, “A key factor in persuading a reluctant Speaker not to make a deal was a sense that if there was no legislation for the middle class that voted for President Carter would bolt and turn to Ronald Reagan for his own kind of tax package.” The consequence was that the legislation died.
The question is, how is our Congress performing when it comes to dealing with the fiscal challenges of the United States? In the case of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, some of the same congressional progressives that held the promise of a big middle class tax cut in 1976 were demanding a large tax cut for the very wealthiest in the country. That did not happen.
Saying politicians must compromise is almost oxymoronic. Far too often politicians make deals because it benefits them more than it benefits average Americans. Legislators who refuse to compromise are loyal followers of Plato, a relative of Socrates: That which we owe to ourselves we owe to the children. Since the children will not help us, we must make the most from them. But when grown-ups talk about their commitments to others, they are guilty of being shallow. If we choose not to sacrifice in the face of intransigence or the nimbleness of the enemy, we are no better than we were when we chose not to sacrifice during the American Revolution.
In the debate over transportation and infrastructure, both parties must find a way to fund investments in the country’s infrastructure while we rein in federal spending and find ways to generate new revenue so the government’s role in the economy is less burdensome. This requires pragmatic leaders willing to compromise in a way that recognizes our people’s needs. No politician, Republican or Democrat, is perfect but in times like these, we need leaders who can look beyond party orthodoxy and be practical in the service of what’s best for all Americans.