Crane is the right man to head Ways and Means
By Paul M. Weyrich
Amidst the endless confusion of the Presidential conflict, there is a contest taking place which will have almost as profound an impact on public policy in the long run as the Bush-Gore race. The Constitution of the United States provides that certain measures must be initiated by the House of Representatives first. That is because the founders of our nation believed that when it came to questions which involved taxation, the representatives closest to the people ought to make the first move. And eventually when Congress set up the Committee system, that meant that such issues originated in the Ways and Means Committee. There is no more powerful Committee in the House of Representatives. Ways and Means even overshadows the powerful Appropriations Committee. Through Ways and Means comes any issue having to do with Medicare, Social Security, all of the many tax policies which were debated last year and the highly controversial trade policy legislation which troubles so many on both sides of the aisle just to name a few.
Competing for the chairmanship of Ways and Means are two Members who could not be more different in every respect. They are Rep. Phil Crane of Illinois and Rep. Bill Thomas of California. Crane is a principled conservative who has been loyal to conservative ideas but who also has been a loyal soldier in the movement back when the entire movement could have convened in a phone booth. Crane was always willing to go where needed to help raise funds or to campaign for a fellow conservative, even if the GOP leadership didn't like the idea of that conservative running in the first place. Crane was a media star before conservatives had such people. I know. I put him on a "meet the press" type television program in Milwaukee in 1965 (of which I was the moderator) when he was headmaster of a private school in suburban Chicago. He was pushing tuition tax credits before anyone heard of the idea and he got people excited about them. I remember that even our cameramen wanted his autograph. This was four years before he was elected to the House in a special election. Crane, the father of nine children, did develop a serious drinking problem in later years after he lost one of his daughters. It is not natural for parents to bury their children. In any case, Crane acknowledged the problem, got help and hasn't taken a drink since.
While Crane has the reputation as a free trader, he also is sympathetic to working class people whose jobs are at stake in this changing economy. When Crane ran for President looking toward the 1980 elections, he went to Youngstown, Ohio and met with steelworkers there who were being put out on the street by changing economic conditions. Crane listened carefully to their complaints and then introduced legislation to remedy some of their concerns. The workers were amazed. They said it was the first time anyone of either party had bothered to stop to listen to their version of what was actually going on.
Thomas, on the other hand, has stayed as far away from the conservative movement as he could get. Coming from California at the height of the Reagan era, it was hard to avoid being identified with Reagan, but Thomas managed it and he always stayed clear of any of Reagan's cutting edge policies. Thomas never even endorsed any of the death tax measures which were up for consideration in the 106th Congress, for example. That legislation has been considered a no-brainer among even liberal to moderate Republicans, but Thomas has stayed away from even those kind of proposals. He did get tangled up with the health care debate and at the time Hillary was moving heaven and earth to pass her bill, and Republicans were doing everything they could to stop it, Thomas was viewed by some observers as being of little help in that battle. Thomas was linked in print romantically to health care lobbyist Debbie Steelman, but Mrs. Thomas stood by him so nothing came of the allegation. Friend and foe alike describe Thomas as erratic in his behavior toward his colleagues and his staff. One minute he is angry and accusatory. The next minute he is all sweetness and light. It keeps everyone on edge.
Nevertheless he is a tireless worker. He knew better than to turn this contest into a liberal vs. conservative fight because the GOP caucus has even moved to the right following the 2000 election. Instead, Thomas has turned the contest into a regional fight. Arguing that Texas and Illinois have enough power in the House leadership as it is, Thomas has picked up support by insisting that the West Coast needs to have someone in a key position. Apparently that is why such staunch conservatives as J.D. Hayworth of Arizona and Wally Herger of California are supporting Thomas. By arguing regional politics, Thomas got a majority of Ways and Means to support his candidacy. But the Ways and Means Committee alone won't choose its leader. The leadership has a steering Committee which makes recommendations to the entire GOP caucus. In truth, however Speaker Hastert and Majority Leader Armey and Majority Whip DeLay go, most likely the steering committee will end up going, and eventually the caucus likely follow as well.
Those of us interested in real social security reform, medical savings accounts, the kind of fundamental tax reform former Chairman Bill Archer wanted to see enacted, and so on, will hope that Crane is the next Chairman of Ways and Means. He has never met a tax increase that he liked. And while he has been accused of being a dogmatic free trader, those who know him best know he can be reasonable on the subject when he gets to know the real situation involved. If Bill Thomas becomes Chairman of Ways and Means, the Democrats will be delighted. They will have someone with whom they can work, as he is close to their views on many issues. Look for few reforms under Thomas and the real possibility of tax increases in some areas. He is, in Washingtonian terms, "pragmatic". Conservatives have everything to gain if Crane wins this race and everything to lose if Thomas wins. Right now Thomas is way ahead. Crane will have to run and run hard to catch up.
As much as we are paying attention to the prolonged Presidential contest, we ought to be tuning in to this race. At the end of the day, it may well turn out to be every bit as important as who occupies the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.
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