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Warning that “government is under siege,” by special interests and partisan deadlock, former Sen. Bill Bradley pointed to selfless public service and political compromise as the saviors of a system that today bears almost no resemblance to the environment that he says allowed him to help craft bipartisan tax reform three decades ago.
“Public service is the arena where courage meets policy and creates a foundation for a more just and prosperous world,” Bradley said on April 5, just before accepting the SIEPR Prize. The Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) gives the award every other year to a scholar or policymaker who has deeply influenced economic policy.
Bradley, a one-time forward for the New York Knicks who served as a Democratic senator from New Jersey from 1979 to 1997, said he went to Washington, D.C., as a “workhorse” motivated by a single idea.
“I wanted to do good,” he said. “I wanted to make the world a better place.”
Among his achievements in public office, he’s perhaps best known for the key role he played in reforming the federal tax code in 1986 — when Republicans controlled the Senate and White House, and Democrats led the House.
He co-authored the “Fair Tax Plan” with House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt in 1982. The legislative proposal championed broadening the tax base through loophole closing with simpler, lower tax rates. Eventually, it became the framework for Ronald Reagan’s 1986 tax reform.
The Senate passed the bill in the summer of 1986 with only three opposing votes.
“We respected and trusted each other as people,” he said of his congressional colleagues. “We were just working the problem until we had a solution. The trust dimension was critical. But trust didn’t emerge magically. You had to see the human being beneath the party label.”
And compromise, he said, is “the most important thing we can do” to end the political dysfunction that is currently stifling Congress.
“All you need are 10 people,” he said. “Five Democrats and five Republicans. That’s 10 votes, and suddenly things are possible. But that’s all based on personal relationships. If you know people, you know what they believe. And if you listen, you know where the room is for compromise.”
Bradley made a presidential bid after leaving the Senate in 1997, losing to Al Gore in the 2000 Democratic primary. He has written seven books on American politics, culture and the economy, including “We Can All Do Better,” which tackles how to overcome a national sense of frustration and cynicism by encouraging more civic participation.
He is now a managing director of Allen & Company LLC, a member of the board of directors of Starbucks, and the host of “American Voices,” a weekly show on Sirius/XM Satellite Radio.
Bradley is the first former lawmaker to receive the SIEPR Prize since the program’s founding in 2010. Past recipients include Paul Volcker, a former Federal Reserve chairman; Martin Feldstein, a Harvard professor and former chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisors; Stanley Fischer, former governor of the Bank of Israel, and vice chairman of the Federal Reserve; and Alice Rivlin, a former vice chair of the Federal Reserve Board, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, and founding director of the Congressional Budget Office.
The Prize was inspired and first funded by George Shultz, who served as President Richard Nixon's budget director and secretary of Labor and Treasury and later led the State Department in the Reagan administration.
Recipients of the SIEPR Prize are selected by Shultz and three others: SIEPR Director Mark Duggan, the Trione Director of SIEPR and the Wayne and Jodi Cooperman Professor of Economics at Stanford; John Shoven, a SIEPR senior fellow and former director, and the Charles R. Schwab Professor of Economics at Stanford; and Jim Poterba, president of the National Bureau of Economic Research.