In an environment where others are only bunting, two individuals, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are swinging for the fences with big plans that have the potential to shape policy for years to come. Camp is floating an overhaul of the nation's tax code. Hagel is attempting to shape the military into a smaller, high-tech fighting force more adapted to current threats.
Legislators were meant to not just win elections, but to legislate. Cabinet Secretaries were not meant to be caretakers, but to tackle big issues. While each initiative includes some elements I support and others I oppose, I applaud their quest to climb the highest peak they face, the first step of what I call Peak Leadership.
There will be opposition to their plans from the inside and the outside, and the end products will be hard for legislators to approve in an election year. However, members of Congress don't run for office to spend all day taking votes to name post offices and congratulate sports teams. Cabinet Secretaries are meant to do more than attend ceremonies and give speeches. Their job is to identify and advocate solutions to the nation's most pressing issues. Both of these approaches are an attempt to do that.
Camp's plan to simplify the tax code, lower rates, and limit deductions may be the easier sell in the halls of Congress. The Ways and Means Chairman has spent years working on the issue and his credentials are of the highest order. Attempting such a major policy change would go a long way to rebut the charge that Republicans are responsible for a "do-nothing Congress." A serious plan may bring President Obama to the table and present an opportunity to forge an as yet elusive grand budget bargain.
There will be challenges from within and without to any proposal. Congressional Democrats, who were not a part of this plan, will scour it for potentially unpopular provisions to turn into attack ads. Therefore it will be essential for Camp to identify Democratic allies to rebut those charges. He appears to have one potential partner in Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore. He'll also have to find friends outside the halls of Congress to take the message of reform to ordinary Americans. Neither task will be easy.
Secretary Hagel faces an even tougher challenge. Neither I nor anyone in Congress wants to do anything that could possibly be construed as not "supporting the troops" and calling for tough votes to reshape the military in an election year is a difficult ask for any Secretary of Defense. Any reform should not be based on an illusion of reduced threats, but on the persistent need to be prepared to meet today's challenges, not yesterday's. Many senior military leaders built their careers on some of the military weapons platforms that Hagel is trying to trim. Getting buy-in from either side to refocus on capabilities more suited to today's threats will be difficult.
The first step to winning support in the Capitol would be to find lawmakers with strong fiscal and military backgrounds. Hagel should consult with these members and make the case that the force structure and capabilities mix he is seeking to create will be better prepared to face the threats of the future. That is, after all, the primary goal of the armed forces, not sheer size.
Secondly, Hagel needs to work an outside game with both defense reform and fiscal responsibility advocates. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen has said, "the single, biggest threat to our national security is our debt, so I also believe we have every responsibility to help eliminate that threat." Casting the debate in those terms would help to reframe the issue for Hagel and the White House on more favorable terms.
Both of these plans are ambitious. One addresses the need for a more competitive economy; the other addresses the most essential need of the federal government -- to be able to effectively defend us. Both are significant components of our fiscal imbalance. With Washington already having reduced discretionary spending to the lowest levels since the Eisenhower administration, the only major fiscal components not addressed are the biggest: healthcare and retirement entitlements. These big steps could pave the way to help Washington address those issues as well.
By working to build internal and external coalitions and reframe the debate, Camp and Hagel have the potential for big hits. If their boldness inspires President Obama and our nation to comprehensively reform and rebalance our federal fiscal framework in a manner fulfills its core commitments while nurturing economic vitality, they will have truly hit it out of the park.
Hon. Mark R. Kennedy (@HonMarkKennedy) leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).
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