While George W. Bush and Albert Gore continue to fight out the presidential contest, another critical, but little noticed, election is going on in Congress. The outcome of a key committee chairmanship battle among Republicans will have a profound impact on how well the next president will be able to enact his policies.
Up for grabs is the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Ways and Means handles legislative tax-writing duties and will play an important role in crafting anything related to the reform of Social Security and Medicare and the repeal of the death tax and marriage penalty, among other things.
Two Republicans, Phil Crane of Illinois and Bill Thomas of California, are vying for the position vacated by the retiring Bill Archer of Texas. Archer, an ardent supporter of medical savings accounts, retirement security reform and tax reduction and simplification, was term-limited from chairing the committee in the 107th Congress. Crane is the longest-serving Republican in Congress (first elected in 1969) and one of the founders of the modern conservative movement. Thomas, chairman of the House Administration Committee in the 106th Congress, is known for having a more moderate voting record and a very independent and brash management style.1
Conservatives, who are a significant constituency among the members of Congress who will decide this race, fear Thomas's moderate leanings will put the success of a potential Bush presidency or conservative defense against a liberal Gore agenda at risk. With the Senate deadlocked, the House will need to lead the charge in pushing proposals to allow limited private Social Security accounts, repeal the marriage penalty and death taxes and enact a responsible prescription drug benefit. The next Ways and Means chairman needs a strong commitment to these reforms in order for this legislation to succeed in what is sure to be a tense political atmosphere. Many conservatives don't believe that Thomas is up to the challenge. In particular, they cite Thomas's past reluctance to support legislation to repeal the death tax - a measure that has received strong bipartisan support.
Chief among Thomas's conservative critics is Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation. Weyrich writes: "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 Washington terms, 'pragmatic.' Conservatives have everything to gain if Crane wins this race and everything to lose if Thomas wins."2
In his campaign for the chairmanship, Thomas has rallied western members of the Committee, stumping on the message that the West Coast needs more influence in Congress. This is the reason why conservative committee members like J.D. Hayworth of Arizona and Wally Herger of California are thought to be supporting him.3 Crane, besides his seniority and conservative credentials, has also been a key fundraiser.
But each candidate also has political baggage. Crane was recently in rehabilitation for a drinking problem that he says he has beaten. Thomas is fighting allegations of carrying on a liaison with a health care lobbyist - an issue that questions his morality and presents a potential conflict of interest.4
The House Republican Steering Committee, made up of the House leadership and key regional representatives, will meet with chairmanship candidates in early December. They will then make a recommendation. The entire Republican Conference will vote to confirm or send back this recommendation on January 4. Many members are still said to be undecided, so the race is still very competitive.
Whoever finally moves into the White House will no doubt receive
less of a "honeymoon" period to push his agenda than
his predecessors enjoyed. And the man who controls the schedule
of the House Ways and Means Committee will be a key player in
the success and length of that honeymoon. While the Bush-Gore
race is definitely the race everyone's watching, the Crane-Thomas
decision is almost as important.
1 Matthew Rees, "The Other Post-Election
Struggle," The Weekly Standard, December 4, 2000.
2 Paul Weyrich, "Crane is the Right Man to Head Ways and Means," Notable News Now, Free Congress Foundation, Washington, D.C., November 27, 2000.
David W. Almasi is the director of publications and media relations
for of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington,
D.C. think tank. Comments may be sent to DAlmasi@nationalcenter.org.