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He's blunt -- and means it

U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas, chairman of Ways and Means, gets right to the point.

By MARY JACOBY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


WASHINGTON -- If it is madness to speak bluntly in Washington, then what does that say about new Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas?

Ever fearless, the mercurial California Republican essentially accused members of the AARP of greed and cynicism in a speech before the politically powerful elder lobby last month.

Even that was rather mild for Thomas. Last year he called a fellow Republican's ideas for reforming managed care "asinine." And in 1995, he famously brawled with then-Rep. Sam Gibbons over Medicare reform, an argument that ended with the Tampa Democrat yanking Thomas' tie.

The list of incidents is so long that Thomas' temperament was the only serious obstacle to his ascension to the chairmanship of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee this year over a more senior but less effective member, Republican Rep. Phil Crane of Illinois.

"I do not believe we can successfully enact legislation with a committee chairman who issues dictums and imposes his own will," Crane wrote in December to Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "Never in my entire tenure in Congress have I allowed my temper to insult, berate or offend a colleague."

Republican term-limit rules required Texas Rep. Bill Archer to step down from the Ways and Means chairmanship. Facing the loss of his gavel, Archer retired from Congress in January.

Thomas, with his acknowledged mastery of the intricacies of tax law and Medicare, went on to easily defeat Crane for the post.

As chairman, Thomas helped set the lightning-quick pace with which the centerpiece of President Bush's $1.6-billion tax package moved through the House on Thursday. He also will oversee the reform of Medicare, Social Security and managed health care. He is one of the people on Capitol Hill who will help make or break the Bush agenda.

Who is this 22-year House veteran? And is there a method to what some might call his madness? Curiously, for all his straight talk, the former community college political science professor avoids such questions with the skill of a master fencer.

"I don't have a temper," he insisted in a lengthy interview March 2. "Crane wrote that in an attempt to get himself selected chairman of Ways and Means."

Noting that he was chosen by a special panel of Republicans appointed by the speaker to select committee heads, Thomas said, "They didn't seem to have that big a problem with it. Don't you think that is the more relevant context?"

Thomas, 59, was elected to the House in 1978 along with Wyoming Republican Dick Cheney, now vice president. They remain close, with Thomas making the historic Ways and Means conference room off the chamber floor available to Cheney when the vice president is working in the House side of the Capitol.

In his first years in Congress, Thomas roomed with another House Republican who would later rise to greater heights, former Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

Although Thomas' nature would seem to have put him right in step with many of the GOP members elected in the 1994 Republican revolution, he found himself on the defensive instead.

His problems stemmed from his past work as ranking Republican on the House Administration Committee, an obscure but important panel that controls office assignments, budgets, equipment purchases and other internal House matters.

Younger Republicans on the panel accused Thomas of being too accommodating toward the then-Democratic majority. They believed he could have done more to politically exploit the 1991 House check-bouncing scandal that happened on the Democratic watch, for example.

So when Republicans won control of the chamber in 1994, there was a push to deny Thomas chairmanship of the administration panel. In the end, Gingrich gave Thomas the job but warned him to get tough. He did, overseeing a privatization plan for House services, slashing committee budgets and commissioning an outside audit of House finances that had been murky, at best, under Democrats.

Thomas was always a warrior, though, when it came to policy.

As the top Republican on the Ways and Means health subcommittee in 1994, he engineered a series of votes on President Clinton's universal health care plan meant to put Democrats on the defensive.

The maneuvers forced Democrats to choose between voting against a new Democratic president's legislative centerpiece or going on record in support of an increasingly unpopular bill.

He was an architect of the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, which slowed the rate of Medicare growth by $270-billion over seven years. Then, when nursing homes and hospitals complained the Medicare cuts were too deep, he helped pass legislation adding billions of dollars into the program.

While Thomas' work on such matters was bringing him closer to the coveted Ways and Means chairmanship, for a time it looked as if his quest would be derailed by a report in his hometown newspaper of an affair with a top health care lobbyist in Washington.

The Bakersfield Californian reported that Thomas had been in an "intensely personal" relationship with the lobbyist. But Thomas, who is married, and the lobbyist issued strong denials, and with no evidence to back it up, the report faded.

That cloud lifted, Thomas has returned to vintage form.

Speaking to the AARP in Washington on Feb. 14, he scolded the organization, which represents 34-million people 50 and older, for taking what he described as wishy-washy positions.

He said they need to speak up more clearly on Republican plans to allow younger workers to invest a portion of their Social Security contributions in the stock market.

"What I said was, "You people should be the 800-pound gorilla . . . but you're not,' " Thomas said in the interview, explaining his remarks. "I told them they didn't have nearly the effect that they could have or should have, because they never take a strong position."

AARP opposes allowing younger workers to invest a portion of their Social Security money in the stock market if it means replacing benefits guaranteed under the program.

But his pointed remarks also seemed intended to stir up inter-generational resentments.

Thomas told the group, for example, that current retirees are "the greatest recipients in the world of the largest inter-generational transfer of wealth in history" and have received far more money in Social Security benefits than they paid into the fund.

In the interview, Thomas would not say whether criticizing the AARP is part of a political strategy to reform Social Security by pitting the generations against each other.

Elderly voters cause most politicians to quake; they are active, involved and known to move mountains in Washington.

In 1989, for example, Congress repealed a law meant to cover costs of catastrophic illnesses for the elderly after Medicare beneficiaries furiously objected to paying premiums to pay for the program.

All Thomas would say is that he does not believe in kowtowing to AARP. "Instead of telling them how wonderful they are, I wanted to present some facts to them and see how they deal with the facts," he said.

But AARP's legislative director said Thomas' approach did more harm than good. "He polarized my board," John Rother said. "He should have known better. He had the opposite effect from what he wanted."

Thomas' ideological foe on Ways and Means, Democratic Rep. Pete Stark of California, said of the AARP speech: "I would put him up for Secretary of State. The Defense Department would love it. With that kind of diplomacy, we'd be at war in a day."

Stark, a liberal who has worked opposite Thomas as the top Democrat on the health subcommittee, said their relationship has never been easy.

"Some days he would be friendly. Some days nasty and vituperative," said Stark, who once likened Thomas to a Nazi for trying to summon the House sergeant at arms to stop Stark from talking during a welfare reform hearing.

"I think he thinks he gets some power through intimidation," Stark said. Does it work? Stark shrugged, suggesting he had long since lost interest in trying to understand Thomas.

In an interview with Congressional Quarterly last year, Thomas attributed his confrontational nature to "a very big inferiority complex" that makes him feel the need to show other people up.

In this month's interview, Thomas declined to elaborate.

But his supporters argue that Thomas, who supports abortion rights and has worked to keep entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security solvent, seems less polarizing if you put your hands over your ears and simply look as his record.

"He is stunningly blunt, which I find refreshing. For people who aren't familiar with him, it can be shocking," said Federation of American Hospitals president Tom Scully, the expected new head of the Health Care Financing Administration, the Medicare regulator.

"But while he says some wild stuff, the end results tend to be pretty moderate and reasonable."

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