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Paper Tiger

On the Hill

If George W. Bush's Social Security reform fails, people may look back at January 18 as the day the wheels really started to come off. That was the afternoon House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas pronounced Bush's plan a "dead horse" that Congress would not pass. Thomas also suggested that any changes to Social Security would involve elaborate tax reform of the sort that can take more than a year, far longer than the few weeks the White House is hoping to devote to Social Security. Thomas even heretically disputed the very notion that Social Security faces a fiscal "crisis," as the Bush administration has obsessively argued, and went so far as to needle the president by noting how Bush himself had used the markedly less alarmist word "problem" dozens of times in a recent speech. This was the sort of thing you might expect to hear from, say, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, not the chairman whose committee will write the first iteration of any Social Security bill this spring. ("It's not an argument Democrats would disagree with," says one Democratic aide.) Making matters worse, in a subsequent appearance on "Meet the Press," Thomas mused eccentrically about adjusting benefits and the retirement age according to race and gender—something Democrats, who quickly issued mocking press releases, do disagree with, along with most Americans.

For a Bush White House that demands militant message precision, this was more than an annoyance—it was a debacle. Sure enough, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan was hammered with reporters' questions about whether Bush's plan was stillborn. Speaking to The Washington Times, the perennially optimistic GOP supply-side activist Stephen Moore conceded that Thomas's remarks suggest "the chance of getting reform done this year is looking to be unlikely." Even some congressional Democrats—who, like shell-shocked soldiers, live in constant fear of the next GOP bombardment—allowed themselves to celebrate. One senior Senate Democratic aide wrote the following gleeful message from her Blackberry: "TKO[ed] WH plan for SS in round 1."

Such exuberance may be premature, especially if Bill Thomas is the basis for it. While it may sound like Thomas intends to suck Social Security reform into the legislative mud and smother it, that is not likely. To the contrary, the obstreperous chairman has a well-established habit of causing short-term confusion within GOP ranks with his know-it-all soliloquies—but then falling into line at crunch time. Thomas may be mercurial, arrogant, obnoxious, outspoken, and highly off-message. But, when this White House wants something, Thomas delivers.

FEW PEOPLE REMEMBER now, but there was a time when the House Ways and Means chairman was a figure of titanic significance—often second in power only to the president himself. In January 1963, the committee's Democratic chairman, Wilbur Mills, was featured on the cover of Time magazine. (Mills was powerful enough to block, almost singlehandedly, the creation of Medicare for several years.) The next great Ways and Means chairman was another Democrat, Dan Rostenkowski, a Washington institution known as much for his steak-and-martini consumption as for being at the center of such epic Capitol battles as the 1983 Social Security reform, the 1986 tax reform, and the 1993 Clinton budget plan.

When Republicans took control of the House in 1994, they imposed six-year term limits on the chairmanships of Ways and Means and every other committee. Chairmen today simply don't have the time to establish themselves as warlords like Mills, who served for 18 years, and Rostenkowski, who served for 14. It takes a few years to make a legislative mark—or to get your face among the political-celebrity caricatures that adorn the walls of the Palm steakhouse.

But Thomas is no hack. Indeed, he is widely acknowledged to be one of the smartest members of Congress, particularly when it comes to gruelingly detailed policy like Medicare and Social Security. He won the title of "brainiest" House member in Washingtonian magazine's 2004 "Best and Worst of Congress" awards. "Intellectually, he's at the top of the heap on their side," notes one Democratic aide who frequently sees Thomas up close.

Unfortunately, Thomas seems forever cognizant of this fact, making him wildly intolerant of anyone who doesn't match his mental heft. As a result, Thomas didn't just win the award for "brainiest," but also for "meanest" and "hottest temper" (the latter in a runaway). You can sense his volcanic core just by listening to him. An unwavering tone of sarcasm, reminiscent of the late comedian Phil Hartman, oozes from his voice like lava. And his volatility is a constant source of mayhem. Most famously, in July of 2003, he called the Capitol Police in a fury after exasperated Democrats marched out of a Ways and Means hearing and tried to have them evicted from a committee library. (Thomas later issued a bizarre, tearful apology on the House floor.) But Thomas's mean spirit is apparent in even mundane interactions. In 1997, a tipster told The Washington Post that Thomas, driving his Porsche near the Capitol, became furious when a van stopped to pick up pedestrians, blocking his path. After blaring his horn, Thomas pulled around and cut off the van at a 45-degree angle- -in what the witness described as "a totally '70s cop-show driving maneuver" that was "right out of 'Magnum, P.I.'"—before storming off to find a police officer. One former House staffer reports boarding a Capitol elevator with Thomas and seeing him "vigorously" jab the door close button as a group of tourists approached. When the doors shut in their faces, Thomas gleefully chuckled out loud, the aide says, "like a cartoon villain."

Thomas can also be unpredictable—though less spectacularly so—in the policy arena. His smarts seem to make him unwilling simply to accept diktats from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—at least at first. Thus, it has become a familiar ritual for him to dump cold water on major Bush initiatives bound for his committee by warning of the myriad compromises and modifications that will be necessary—as was the case with his remarks about Social Security last week— thereby showing off his policy brilliance. Predictably, this raises the hopes of Democrats, who imagine that Thomas will assume the role of Mills and shoot down Bush's proposals. Unfortunately for them, however, Thomas's sound and fury rarely signify anything. In the end, the White House gets what it wants.

Consider Bush's 2001 tax cut. Back then, as now, Bush had just narrowly won a presidential election, and Democrats were insisting that he lacked the mandate to push a major fiscal change. Bush stubbornly insisted that he would plow ahead with his full $1.6 trillion tax cut, saying that compromise was impossible. But Thomas seemed to raise doubts. In January of 2001, he warned of a "process of accommodation" over the tax cut and, "[g]iven the results of the election, no one is going to get everything they want," he added. Yet Thomas's committee ultimately passed Bush's tax cut in almost exactly the form the White House wanted. And, in negotiations with the Senate, Thomas and his House colleagues gave virtually no ground, winning Bush more than 80 percent of the tax cut he desired.

It was a similar story when it came to the GOP's agonizing passage of a Medicare prescription-drug bill in late 2003. Thomas initially withheld his support from a White House plan until he could see its specific details. Then he threatened to derail painstaking negotiations with the Senate if his demand that Medicare be forced to compete with private insurers was not met. During one negotiating session, he so abusively berated Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson that Bush himself placed an angry call to House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Ultimately, however, Thomas helped to usher the bill through some intense intraparty opposition to secure its passage in the House. "Thomas takes problems that aren't particularly difficult, makes them ten times harder than they otherwise would be, and then manages to pull out a victory at the last minute that makes him look terrific," says the Democratic aide who sees the chairman up close.

REPUBLICANS WEREN’T HAPPY with Thomas's contribution to the GOP's already muddled Social Security message. One House Republican aide who specializes in Social Security pauses cautiously at the question of what Thomas was trying to accomplish. "I'm not quite sure. I really have no idea." Asked whether Thomas's comments had been helpful to the cause, Michael Tanner, a key Social Security privatization booster at the Cato Institute, offers a flat "no." But Tanner has seen enough of Thomas to know not to worry too much. "I think, to some extent, this is Bill Thomas making sure everybody realized he's still there, and that this has to go through him, and that people should pay attention to him."

Democrats, as they often do, suspect a conspiracy is afoot. "He wants to be in the center of the action," agrees Democrat Sander Levin, a Ways and Means member and a House Democratic point man on Social Security. Yet Levin is also convinced that, just as Thomas demanded provisions laying the groundwork for a possible privatization of Medicare, the chairman is determined to pass private savings accounts that will begin to phase out Social Security. "I think he likes to do it his way, but that his way in the end won't differ from what the White House wants," Levin says. Others note that Thomas is thought to be interested in winning an extension of his term on Ways and Means, which is set to expire in 2007—giving him yet another reason to be a good team player. After all, as Tanner notes, Republicans may already be politically committed to the success of Social Security reform. "What's much worse for the members of the House is to attempt Social Security and fail," Tanner says. "If you get [reform], and the checks still go out to seniors in 2006, the [Democratic] scare tactics are over. But, if you try and fail, then everyone says, 'Aha! If they had succeeded, then you wouldn't be getting your checks.'" All of which suggests that, while some Democrats may see Bill Thomas as a heroic dissident, when all is said and done, he may turn out to be just another House GOP apparatchik.

This article originally ran in the February 7, 2005 issue of the magazine.