Mean Time

By

When GOP leaders chose California Congressman Bill Thomas to chair
the immensely powerful House Ways and Means Committee in January,
they knew the risks. Thomas is one of the smartest members of
Congress; he is also one of the nastiest. Last year he finished
second in the "Meanest" and "Hottest Temper" categories in
Washingtonian magazine's "Best and Worst of Congress" poll. (Tom
DeLay was voted "Meanest," thanks to Democratic hostility, but
Washingtonian said Thomas polled equally from both parties.) The
Washington Post noted that Thomas's penchant "for berating allies
and enemies alike" worried his fellow Republicans, as did episodes
like a wild 1995 shouting match between Thomas and a colleague in a
public hallway that culminated in the other congressman grabbing
Thomas by the necktie.In fact, in order to get the chairmanship, Thomas had to assure his
colleagues that he'd change his ornery ways. "I realize that to be
chairman of the committee I can't be the Bill Thomas you're used to
seeing on the committee, " he promised. In the months before his
selection, Republicans say, the stocky 60-year-old assiduously
projected an image that was "calm and cool."

No longer. In the past few weeks Thomas has jeopardized the effort
to win "fast-track" trade authority by alienating key House
Democrats. And in the grueling fight with the Senate over an
economic stimulus plan, he has insulted the very Democrats with
whom he needs to cut a deal. "Bill Thomas has turned the stimulus
talks into a personality-management exercise," says an exasperated
Senate Democratic aide. In other words, just when he needs to stay
under control, Thomas has reverted to belligerent form. And by the
time this year's legislative session is over, the really angry
people may be in the White House and in the Republican leadership,
where precious legislative accomplishments could be stymied by one
difficult man.

True to form, Thomas became Ways and Means chairman after a fight.
Illinois Congressman Phil Crane had ten years more seniority and
the support of influential social conservatives. He also exploited
Thomas's coarse reputation, declaring in a public letter that he
had never screamed at a colleague. And some Republicans worried
about reports that Thomas was allegedly having an affair with a
health-industry lobbyist who worked closely with his subcommittee.
But Crane was undermined by a bout with alcoholism that landed him
in rehab last year, and by the fact that Thomas had raised more
money for the party.

Most important, though, was Thomas's fabled policy expertise,
especially on major White House initiatives--Medicare and Social
Security reform and tax cuts- -that the committee would handle.
Thomas established a rare mastery of Medicare as a subcommittee
chairman in the 1990s, rising before dawn to study hospital
reimbursements and part-b premiums. His grasp of tax policy is also
legendary. As a result, Thomas knows he's usually the most
knowledgeable person in the room. And he lets it show. "He is
supremely, absolutely confident in his own beliefs. He believes
that he gets it better than anyone else," says a senior House
Democratic aide. Said Thomas himself this year in an interview with
The New York Times, "People don't like it when I'm upset because
somebody decided that they just thought about this for 10 seconds
and they want to take two hours to dissect it."

Thomas passed his first test as chairman this March when he quickly
rammed Bush's tax cut through his committee on a party-line vote.
But while ramming may suit Thomas's blunt, impatient personality,
it's a style poorly suited to the current political environment.
Today the GOP no longer controls the Senate, and bare-knuckled
politics seems especially coarse after September 11. Whip- cracking
is out; deal-making is in.

The first sign that Thomas might have trouble adjusting to this new
reality came last month. Ways and Means Republicans ruefully tell
of a Thomas explosion over an insurance bill written by the House
Financial Services Committee that gave insurers tax breaks for
catastrophic reserve funds. Florida Republican Mark Foley, a
longtime advocate of the measure, sent a benign e-mail to fellow
Ways and Means Republicans on its behalf. Soon after, Thomas called
a meeting of committee Republicans at which "he went ballistic,"
according to GOP aides. Thomas felt that the Financial Services
Committee had encroached on his authority and that his own
committee members may somehow have been plotting to undermine him.
According to one attendee, a shouting Thomas even warned that he
might ask House leaders to remove insubordinate members from the
committee. "And if that sounds like a threat," Thomas concluded,
"it is."

Much more worrying, from the White House's perspective, have been
Thomas's clumsy efforts to craft a bill granting the president
"fast-track" trade authority. Several observers from both parties
say Thomas has imperiled the measure by working almost exclusively
with a narrow group of centrist Democrats and refusing to stroke
the ego of his committee's veteran ranking Democrat, Charlie
Rangel. Even when he brokered an agreement on a House bill with the
centrists in October, Thomas didn't want to discuss it with Rangel.
According to House Democratic aides, Thomas found Rangel and his
friend, Louisiana Democrat William Jefferson, chatting on the House
floor. Thomas approached and asked Jefferson in a stage voice
whether the agreement was acceptable to "the gentleman from New
York," i.e., Rangel. "It was totally bizarre, weird behavior, "
says one aide. Relations between Rangel and Thomas got so bad,
according to Roll Call, that last month House Speaker Dennis
Hastert engineered an effort to bring them together--to which
Thomas responded with typical hostility.

Should fast track fail, Thomas will likely take a good share of the
blame. Some House members believe that including Rangel--who
generally complained less about the authority itself than about the
way it was being pushed through Congress--earlier in the
negotiations could have won his support. That in turn might have
given several other Democrats cover to follow suit. At the least,
it might have prevented Rangel from rounding up support for an
alternative bill he wound up crafting on his own.

But Thomas's "bizarre, weird behavior" has peaked in the stimulus
battle. Within 48 hours of the September 11 attacks, Thomas was
talking about a capital gains tax cut--galling Democrats who
accused him of trying to exploit the tragedy. By October his
committee had produced a stimulus plan so loaded with corporate tax
breaks that it was widely trashed, even in conservative venues like
The Wall Street Journal. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill also
dismissed the bill, which cost $25 billion more than the
administration had requested, as "show business." Now, with the
Republican-controlled House having passed its version, Thomas is
the lead GOP negotiator in the long, public standoff with Senate
Democrats. But Thomas's harsh tone has proved disastrously
ill-suited to the public relations jousting that will decide the
bill's outcome. Last month Thomas accused the Democrats of
"race-baiting" in a fight with no racial dimension. He also
virtually impugned Daschle's patriotism, saying he was either
"nakedly in opposition to economic recovery and assisting us in the
war effort," or that his political ambition was so rampant he
should step down as leader. In an October 31 press release, Thomas
derisively compared Daschle to "a third grader taking a math test
... [who] can't wait for recess." And in a manic and bellicose
performance before the press last week, Thomas effectively called
Daschle empty-headed, commenting that it would be easier to know
what was going on inside Richard Gephardt's head "because you'd
bump into things up there." Not that Gephardt escaped Thomas's
wrath. Thomas called him a whiner "who can't stand not being at the
center of attention."

Thomas has reportedly been just as thorny in private. He threw all
staffers out of a stimulus meeting between House and Senate leaders
in Daschle's Capitol conference room last Wednesday. He also
threatened to leave if reporters were allowed a photo op, which he
apparently suspected would be some kind of setup. ("I am not going
to be used!" Thomas declared, bewildering other attendees.) At the
same meeting, Thomas shouted at Daschle, accusing him of trying to
sabotage the package. When Democrats tried to discuss policy,
Thomas stalled, insisting that talks be guided by a detailed,
written framework. Among other things, Thomas demanded an agreement
that "no dissenting views or additional views shall accompany the
joint explanatory analysis" released with any stimulus bill.
Several Democrats say Thomas has been the single biggest impediment
to a stimulus deal. "He's the Grinch who stole the stimulus," says
one.

Some observers speculate that Thomas is obsessed with controlling
the negotiations because he fears that Daschle, a proven tactician,
will outmaneuver him and his fellow House Republican leaders.
"They're afraid they're going to sit down in the room and get
snookered," says a Senate Republican aide. Another Republican
suggests that Thomas is merely venting the immense frustration felt
by House Republicans. Burned by their defeat on the airline
security bill, House GOPers believe Senate Republicans may now cave
on the stimulus as well, and that the White House may sell them out
once again. Whatever the case, one Republican official familiar
with the White House's thinking says the Bush team is less than
thrilled with Thomas's caustic rhetoric.

In a sense, the White House is getting what it asked for. Last
spring, having a dictatorial, details-obsessed Ways and Means
chairman was just what the administration needed to pass its tax
cut. But with the tax cut passed, and Thomas crusades like Medicare
and Social Security reform shelved for now, those tactics no longer
work. If Republicans hope to prevail in this very different
legislative season, they need a softer touch. What they have instead
is Bill Thomas.

Loading Related Articles...
Article Tools
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.