Yesterday, February 6, 2013, marked the 102nd anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s birth. Amidst all the well-deserved encomiums published in recognition of the birthday of our first and only movement conservative President, there was little or no mention of Reagan’s two acknowledged policy mistakes that are perhaps his most instructive acts for today’s conservative elected officials.
The first and most well-known mistake President Reagan made was his “compromise” with Democrats to raise taxes in return for spending cuts that never materialized.
However, Reagan didn’t make this error on his own. The President was under almost constant pressure from the Republican establishment – especially on Capitol Hill – to raise taxes.
Congressman David Stockman, whom President Reagan appointed to head his Office of Management and Budget, exemplified the problem.
Stockman was one of the first on the Reagan team to begin clamoring for a tax increase, long before the Reagan tax cuts had a chance to begin working. Reagan later wrote that “…many times when I suggested that we push Congress to cut spending on a certain program, his [Stockman’s] response was that it was hopeless – or in his words, ‘DOA’ – on Capitol Hill.”
This pattern repeated itself throughout Reagan’s presidency.
Some of the early entries in Reagan’s diary for 1982 illustrate the problem:
Republican House leaders came down to the W.H. Except for Jack Kemp they are h—l bent on new taxes and cutting the defense budget.
Looks like a heavy year ahead
Met this a.m. with our [Republican] Congressional leaders. They are really antsy about the deficit and seem determined that we must retreat on our program – taxes and defense spending. Yet they seem reluctant to go for the budget cutting we’ve asked for…
In 1982, Reagan ultimately made the deal with Democrats urged upon him by the establishment Republican leaders in Congress, “to support a limited loophole-closing tax increase to raise more than $98.3 billion over three years in return for their agreement to cut spending by $280 billion during the same period… we never got those cuts,” Reagan later wrote ruefully in his biography.
When President Reagan finally relented and did “compromise” and agree to raise taxes in return for spending cuts, to “show the financial community we were serious about reducing the deficit,” Congress reneged on the deal.
The second policy mistake of the Reagan years that today’s Republicans could learn from was the passage in 1986 of “The Immigration Reform and Control Act” (IRCA), through which about three million illegal immigrants were granted legal status.
President Reagan believed to his very soul that the opportunity to join in the greatness of America should be open to anyone and he was equally determined in his opposition to anything that smacked of exploitation or abuse of those without power.
Reagan also had a deep commitment to his larger agenda in Central and South America – that of fighting communism, and saw good relations with Mexico as key to the success of that agenda.
This made him open to the appeals for “legalization” made by establishment Republican Senator Alan Simpson – the bête noir of conservatives on many issues even today, 15 years after he left the Senate.
When the IRCA or Simpson-Mazzoli Act finally passed, it supposedly required employers to attest to their employees' immigration status; made it illegal to knowingly hire or recruit unauthorized immigrants; it legalized certain seasonal agricultural illegal immigrants and it legalized illegal immigrants who entered the United States before January 1, 1982 and had resided there continuously with the penalty of a fine, back taxes due, and admission of guilt.
One of the “sweeteners” to obtain the votes necessary to pass the bill was also a Congressional promise to fund and build a border fence.
Today, 27 years after the passage of the IRCA, the border fence isn’t built and the penalties against hiring illegal aliens remain largely unenforced.
President Reagan wasn’t unaware of the cost of illegal immigration. He noted in his biography that economic refugees from Latin America “were already overwhelming welfare agencies and schools in some parts of our nation,” but he allowed himself to be convinced that Congress would actually follow through on the promise to build a stronger border fence and that his successors as President would actually enforce the law he signed and supported.
As we celebrate President Reagan and look to him for inspiration, today’s Republicans and conservatives would do well, when it comes to establishment pleas to raise taxes in exchange for spending cuts and grant amnesty to illegal immigrants, to keep the lessons of these, his two most notable policy mistakes, in mind.