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Don Lubick, who passed away yesterday at age 95, was an extraordinary public servant who was among the last living links to the beginnings of modern tax policy. I do not believe anyone served longer in senior Treasury tax policy positions than Don.
Remarkably, he began his government career in the Kennedy Administration and concluded it as a member of Barack Obama’s transition team. People often are surprised to learn that Don was a Republican when he first came to Washington since he spent so much of his career working for Democrats.
He was first recruited to Treasury by the legendary Stanley Surrey, who asked him to serve as Tax Legislative Counsel. Don stayed though the beginning of the Johnson Administration, then returned to private law practice in his hometown of Buffalo.
At the beginning of the Carter Administration in 1977, he was asked to rejoin Treasury, this time by another legend, Larry Woodworth. Don served initially as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Tax Legislation. But after Larry’s death in late 1977, Don took his place as Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy.
Helping other nations
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Don and another tax policy legend, Ward Hussey, helped the Dominican Republic reform its tax laws. Later, they wrote Basic World Tax Code and Commentary, a template for a well-functioning tax code. In the mid-1990s, Don directed Treasury’s Office of International Tax Assistance to Developing Countries. There, he helped Eastern European and Central Asian nations that had broken from the Soviet orbit develop modern tax systems.
In 1996, he was asked to return to Washington to serve yet again—this time as President Clinton’s Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy. My TPC colleagues Len Burman and Eric Toder were his deputies. Over the years, Don mentored scores of Treasury staffers who would go on to become among the nation’s top tax lawyers and public finance economists.
A decade later, he took one last tour of public service as a member of Obama’s transition team.
As my TPC colleague Gene Steuerle wrote in 2018, Don always was “guided by basic principles of tax policy: efficiency, simplicity, and the concept of horizontal equity—the idea that equals should be treated equally under the law.” And he was a strong believer in progressivity.
A wonderful teacher
I first got to know Don during the Carter Administration, when I was covering the Treasury as a young reporter. Truth be told, Don didn’t love talking to journalists. But he was a wonderful teacher. He was not the guy to ask about the inner-most secrets of the Carter Treasury. His discretion did not allow for that. Nor did he suffer fools, or foolish questions. But he often took the time to help me understand what makes good tax law.
Gene—who worked for Don as a young economist—calls him “one of the most dedicated public servants I have ever known. And his graciousness extended to the tennis court, for those us who had the privilege of playing with him.”
Tax policy in the Carter Administration often was messy. Don battled for the best possible choices. Sometimes he won. Sometimes he didn’t. Don’s great friend Stu Eizenstat recounted to Gene in 2018 that the only time Don ever read congressional testimony verbatim was when he had to defend some misguided energy tax credits.
A public servant
As someone who started his career as a Republican and comfortably worked for four Democratic presidents, Don understood the value of bipartisanship. His impatience with foolish questions often was tried during his many long hours testifying on Capitol Hill. But Don built strong relationships with lawmakers of both parties. And everyone, even those who disagreed with him, respected his knowledge of tax law and his principled view of it.
Since 2016, the Tax Policy Center has sponsored an annual tax policy symposium in Don’s honor. At a time when public service is being discounted by so many, it is important to remember a policy idealist who repeatedly answered government’s call. At significant financial sacrifice, Don worked tirelessly to make a better tax code and serve the public good.
He’ll be missed by his many friends and his tennis partners. And, of course, by his family, especially Susan, his wife of more than 60 years.
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