Public comment, 21st century-style

Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) is trailed by reporters on April 23, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Rob Leonard read quite a few of the "Write Rosty" letters.

Senator Max Baucus chairs the Senate Finance Commitee.

Clint Stretch was a congressional tax staffer in the '80s.

Almost 30 years ago, Congress asked the public to write letters in support of changes to the tax code. You remember what a letter is, right? Piece of paper, folded up, stuck in an envelope. Close your eyes and pretend it’s 1985: President Reagan makes a nationally televised speech on the need for tax reform. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski gives the Democratic response. He’s been working with President Reagan on tax reform.  But he thinks one key player is missing: The American people. So, Rostenkowski says, write me a letter.

He said, “Even if you can’t spell Rostenkowski, put down what they used to call my father and grandfather -- Rosty.   Just address it to: Rosty, Washington, DC. The Post Office will get it to me.”

Eventually, the Post Office got more than 75,000 letters to Rostenkowski. Rob Leonard, Rostenkowski’s chief tax counsel, read quite a few of them. Leonard says they didn’t actually put any of the public’s suggestions in their tax reform bill. But he says Rostenkowski did use the letters  to win over reluctant members of Congress.

He says Rostenkowski told them, “'If you have any doubt that this is important, I have a reservoir of letters here if you want to read them.'”

It was a potent weapon. One Senator Max Baucus would like to have. The Montana Democrat is head of the Senate Finance Committee. He’s working with the current chair of House Ways and Means, Republican Dave Camp, on new tax reform legislation. Baucus says they were trying to come up with a way to get the public involved.

“So we got talking -- you know, that’s what Rosty did," he explains.  "Kinda hard to do now because people don’t write letters anymore.”

But they do go to websites, and Twitter. So Baucus and Camp launched a Twitter account and TaxReform.gov -- a website with a prominent place for public comment.

But the 21st century technology might not be as effective as Rostenkowski’s lowly letters. Just ask Clint Stretch, who was a congressional tax staffer in the 80s. He says, now, Congress is too bitterly divided over deficits and taxes on the rich.

“We’ve been having an extended and pretty ugly debate about that," he says.  "Just saying you’re going to do tax reform is not going to change that fundamental debate."

Even if you have a Twitter account.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

Rob Leonard read quite a few of the "Write Rosty" letters.

Senator Max Baucus chairs the Senate Finance Commitee.

Clint Stretch was a congressional tax staffer in the '80s.

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