Tax reform event brings 3 senators to JHU

On Tuesday the Center for Advanced Governmental Studies hosted an event sponsored by the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) and the Moment of Truth Project (MOT) took place to discuss what comprehensive tax reform should look like, and what it will take to get it passed. (Moment of Truth was formed by Fiscal Commission co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Sen. Alan Simpson to build momentum behind the commission’s deficit reduction plan).

Today, President Obama is speaking on long-term deficit reduction. He’s expected to embrace some of components of the plan laid out late last year by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform’s general framework (also known as Bowles-Simpson).

Yesterday’s event at Johns Hopkins University helped build the momentum for reform. There was wide consensus that tax reform will need to be bipartisan and comprehensive, and will need to scale back most of the $1.1 billion in tax expenditures. Tax expenditures are at the heart of the “modified zero plan,” which would eliminate or scale them back, and use the savings to cut individual and corporate tax rates, as well as budget deficits.

Coinciding with the event, PPI released a policy memo on the modified zero plan, written by Paul Weinstein of Hopkins’ Government Studies Program and Marc Goldwein of the Committee for a Responsible Budget, and both formerly of the Commission. Both were on hand.

The event featured three Senators who have been leading the charge for reform – Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Dan Coats (R-Ind.) – and one CEO and Fiscal Commission member, Dave Cote (CEO of Honeywell).

Sen. Bennet kicked off the event with stories from the town halls he’d been spending the last two years doing: “In every single meeting, debt and deficit came up,” he said. “There’s a deep skepticism that if we can’t figure out how to pay our bills, it suggests a lack of confidence in our government and our elected leaders, and it’s fairly well-placed.”

Bennet offered three criteria for what a deficit reduction plan would have to accomplish to pass muster with voters. First, it would need to be comprehensive.  Second, sacrifice has to be shared.  And third, it has to be bipartisan.  Coats laid out a similar series of principles for the legislation that he has introduced with Senator Wyden. 

Senator Wyden and Senator Coats

Wyden looked at the problem through the lens of tax simplification, noting that as April 15 approaches, “Americans are going through the 6 billion hours they spend each year filling out tax forms — 690,000 years is what you have in an annual effort going through the water torture of figuring out if line 9 is modifying line 7.”

Wyden also stressed that any tax reform also needed to encourage investment in what he called “red-white-and-blue jobs” – that is, solid American jobs, preferably in manufacturing.  Wyden called his bill fundamentally a jobs bill.

Cote, CEO of Honeywell, echoed similar themes in his remarks. “We need a global competitiveness agenda for the U.S.” he began. “Our corporate tax system is globally uncompetitive. We have the highest tax rate in the world, and we’re the only major country with a territorial system that encourages companies to keep their cash overseas. And we give back $1.2 trillion in what is euphemistically named ‘tax expenditures,’ but just another form of spending that’s done through the tax code.”


A Perspective on Defusing America's Debt Crisis

Governmental Studies professor Paul Weinstein and National Commission on Fiscal Responsiblity and Reform Director Marc Goldwein co-authored a report, published this month by PPI, arguing for a reform to the tax code called the "Modified Zero Plan."  The plan is based on the recommendations of the Fiscal Commission, which the authors call "the only bipartisan game in town when it comes to deficit reduction."

The report is fascinating and easy to read.  And that's really saying something, considering it is about the tax code!  The authors explain the recommendation of the Fiscal Commission-- termed "The Zero Plan"-- in clear, no-nonsense languge.  They highlight the Commission's goals of lowering tax rates, raising revenues, and drastically simplifying the tax code.  To this end, a defining feature of The Zero Plan is that it eliminates almost all tax breaks.

Weinstein and Goldwein then argue for adopting a "Modified Zero Plan," which retains the Zero Plan's basic goals, but reintroduces a small list of tax incentives that the authors consider essential for the well-being of the economy.

 The resulting plan, as well as the report explaining it, is simple and digestable.  And getting a good deal of attention.  For example, Reihan Salam at The National Review Online writes,

The moderately left-of-center Progressive Policy Institute has just published “Less is More: The Modified Zero Plan for Tax Reform” by Paul Weinstein Jr. and Marc Goldwein, a useful contribution that explains the virtues of the Zero Plan approach while also offering a modified version that aims to meet the objections of egalitarian critics. I don’t like the modified plan as much as the original, but it strikes me as an approach I could live with. 


Panel of Journalists Discuss Health Care Reform in Morning Symposia

On Monday morning, April 11, 2011, The Center for Advanced Governmental Studies at Johns Hopkins University held an important breakfast symposia, titled, “Journalists’ Perspectives on Health Care Reform.”    Dr. Dorothea Israel  Wolfson, Director of the MA in Government program, introduced the guests.   The event included the moderator, Jenny Bryant, Vice-President of PhRMA, and three panelists who specialize in health care policy issues as either journalists or policy analysts: Gardiner Harris, public health reporter for the New York Times, Phillip Longman, Senior Research Fellow with the New American Foundation, and Marilyn Werber Serafini, the Robin Toner Distinguished Fellow of the Kaiser Family News Services.

The discussion began with opening statements by the panelists, each of whom focused on some of the most pertinent issues in the field of health care reform.  Phil Longman focused his remarks on the extent to which health care reform has been not so much about the delivery systems but more about the financing of health care.  While costs are certainly a huge problem, the big story that the media has finally started to cover is the rate of medical errors in the health care system.  Longman pointed to the shocking statistic that contact with the US health care system (e.g., the medical errors that result) is the third leading cause of death of Americans, behind only cancer and heart disease.   He cited a Rand study that demonstrated that the chances of receiving inappropriate care in the US health care system is 50 percent.  He also discussed his fascinating work on the transformation of the Veterans Affairs  Hospital system:  The VA system now has the best metrics in patient safety and cost-effectiveness; it also develops life-long relationships with its patients and boasts an IT system that can reduce the rate of medical errors.   He suggested that the VA system could serve as  a model for a much improved civilian health care delivery system.

Marilyn Serafini discussed three issues that the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) raises.  First, what will be the implementation challenges for the states, especially during the recession, with state budgets so strained?   Second, how will provisions of PPACA that call for more integrated types of care impact the reorganization of the health delivery and insurance markets, which are already moving to more consolidation into Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs)?  And what are some the strengths and drawbacks of such ACOs?  Finally, Serafini  noted that  we can’t ignore the role that politics plays in all of this, and, importantly, that much could change with the result of the upcoming 2012 elections. 

Dr. Dorothea Wolfson introduces the panelists

Gardiner Harris emphasized the generational gaps in interest in health care reform and urged students in the audience to pay more attention to the issue, as 35 percent of their tax dollars go to funding Medicare and Medicaid.  He also noted that there are many health care systems in the industrialized world that offer good technical solutions for what ails the American system, but that the political battle between Republicans and Democrats  frequently tends to stand in the way of meaningful reform.   The different visions of the two parties are fundamental. 

Jenny Bryant raised some interesting questions for the panelists to consider, such as why are the two parties  speaking past each other in the health care debate.  She also asked what are the odds that the full implementation of the bill will take place in 2014 or how much will be replaced and repealed.  These and other questions from the audience led to a thoughtful and meaningful discussion among the three panelists. 


Professor Paul Weinstein Discusses Politics of Bipartisan Fiscal Reform

With the prospect of a government shut down looming, Professor Paul Weinstein gave a timely symposia talk Wednesday night on The Bowles-Simpson Fiscal Commission, government shutdowns, and the prospects for a bipartisan, comprehensive agreement on deficit reduction and tax reform.    He focused his evening talk on the politics of the current debate on the deficit and budget process.  Having served as a senior advisor on the Bowles-Simpson Fiscal Commission, Professor Weinstein shared his insights and the reasons why he is optimistic that the environment for bi-partisan agreement has much improved over the last five years.

Paul Weinstein speaking on fiscal reform

President Obama's creation of the Commission last year was met with low expectations.  Weinstein shared that, for starters, the Commission met in one of the most undesirable and uncomfortable buildings in Washington, DC and 80 percent of the staffers were not paid by the executive branch.  The Commission, like many other commissions, was, some cynically argue, to simply provide political cover for the executive and legislative branches, by taking on an unpopular and tough political issue, in this case, deficit reduction.  In addition, the Executive Order that created the Fiscal Commission could not require Congress to vote on the recommendations (although Pelosi added a provision that if 14 out of the 18 members agreed -- a super majority, Congress would take up their recommendations on the floor).  Moreover, the Democratic and Republican members of the commission were not moderates; rather they held leadership positions and would be more or less considered ideologically strident.  Thus, given all these reasons, the prospects for reaching meaningful bi-partisan consensus looked rather bleak.

Yet Professor Weinstein shared with the audience that something changed along the way, and despite these obstacles, the diverse members of the Commission were able to negotiate and reach meaningful consensus, making serious cuts on discretionary spending and entitlements, agreeing on raising revenues, and reforming social security and the tax code to make it more progressive.   Some obstacles, of course, remain, such as a consensus on health care reform, which Democrats and Republicans simply could not agree on, but Weinstein thought health care did not have to be an issue in terms of the budget at this point.   Professor Weinstein provided a colorful account of the negotiations that took place, the political motivations behind these compromises, and how the under-the-radar conditions in which the Commission met contributed to a spirit of comity and compromise.  In fact, and equal number of elected  Democrats and Republicans supported the plan and 64 Senators signed a letter to use the recommendations of the Commission as a starting point for fiscal reform.  As always, a lively Q & A followed Professor Weinstein’s fascinating account of how bi-partisanship reform triumphed in the commission, despite the odds against it. 


Students: Take advantage of career counseling and career-building resources!

Its about time we reintroduced Lucy Shapiro, M.Ed., to our students and alumni.  Ms. Shapiro is the dedicated career counselor for the MA in Government and MA in Global Security Studies programs.  She maintains extensive career resources on this site (see the Career section in the navigation panel on the left) and is available for individual appointments about your career search.  You can email her at

Ms. Shapiro has worked in many career counseling & teaching positions, managing career programs, and providing individual career counseling for over 20 years in government and university settings.  She currently provides career counseling services for Johns Hopkins University Masters in Government and Global Securities graduate students/alumni in Washington, DC; has worked as Senior Career Development Specialist at the U.S. General Accounting Office; Assistant Director of Career Services at The George Washington University; Career Services Director at Mount Vernon College; Career Development Lecturer at University of Maryland; and Career Counselor at University of Delaware.

Before getting her M.Ed. in Career Counseling at the University of Delaware, she taught business education subjects to university and high school students.  Her professional certifications include Master Career Counselor (MCC, NCDA),  Master Career Development Professional (MCDP, NCDA), and Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC, NCDA).