Finding Common Ground on Economic Policy in the Era of Trump

By JOHN H. SUNUNU

Editor’s Note: Governor John Sununu and Congressman Barney Frank will be in conversation in an event entitled “Finding Common Ground For Economic Progess In The Trump Era,” on Wednesday, Oct. 11 from 4:30 – 6 p.m. in Wilson Hall. They submitted these op-eds to The Campus as a prelude to the event.

Finding common ground on economic policy during the Trump era will be no easier, nor more difficult, than it was when George W. Bush was president or when Barack Obama was president.

The last time a truly significant bipartisan economic package made its way into law was in 1991 when George H. W. Bush worked with the Congress in which the Democrats held a 260–175 majority in the house and a 55–45 majority in the Senate. In spite of those numbers, President Bush was able to negotiate with the Democratic leadership to produce a package of spending cuts and tax changes that — regardless of a few serious bumps in the road to the passage of the legislation — produced nearly a decade of surpluses, growth and economic prosperity.

Unfortunately, his success, in a way, made it even more difficult to achieve a similar success today because that President Bush paid a huge political price in being defeated for reelection, primarily as a result of a backlash from voters angry that he had accepted taxes in the package. That political message has prevented real progress or real bipartisan economic policy from being enacted by recent administrations.

Creating bipartisan consensus on major issues is always difficult. It is difficult because our constitutional government was designed to make it difficult. We used to call it “checks and balances,” not gridlock. The legislative process is not easy and becomes an almost insurmountable challenge when the American public is deeply divided on policy and issues. Today those divisions are very significant.

Without meaningful and rational public debate on the major issues, including the economic issues, there is no impetus for Congress to seek common ground. Unfortunately, it has become fashionable around the country to stifle debate rather than promote debate. Traditional venues for such exchanges, such as college campuses are embracing protocols that discourage rather than promote discourse. The country is the poorer as a result of this trend.

Common ground on difficult issues must start with us — the public. We need to be willing to debate the equity of tax policy and distribution of tax burdens. We need to debate the consequences as well as the benefits of policies of redistribution. We need to compare the benefits and the impacts of economic stimulus programs. Until there is at least a hint of common ground on these issues within the grassroots of America, it will continue to be almost impossible for our representatives in Washington to find common ground.

Congress and President Trump are engaging on the issue of Tax Reform. Maybe the effort here at Middlebury College can serve as an example to promote the constructive discourse needed to catalyze a good and constructive piece of tax legislation.

Mr. Sununu served as the 75th governor of New Hampshire from 1983 to 1989. From 1989 to 1991, he served as chief of staff to President George H. W. Bush. Mr. Sununu is a Republican. 

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