- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2000

With the weakening economy showing further signs of decline, the contest over who will be the next House Ways and Means Committee chairman takes on an even more important dimension in the coming weeks.

Because Committee Chairman Bill Archer will retire at the end of this month, House Republicans must now decide whether to give the powerful, tax-writing chairmanship to Illinois Rep. Phil Crane, the next in line on the seniority ranking, or to skip down to third-ranked Bill Thomas of California.

Both men underwent searching interviews by the GOP's steering committee over the past two weeks. At this point, there are few clues as to whom the party will pick to run the panel. But when Mr. Crane emerged from a two-hour session last week, the influential House GOP Whip Tom DeLay made a point of loudly telling Mr. Crane "nice job in there" as the two came out of the room to greet a gaggle of reporters.

Mr. Crane, one of the party's most conservative members and a stalwart tax-cutter, should have the inside track in the race for the post. The 30-year political veteran is a staunch free-market, free-trade champion and, like Mr. Archer, was one of the first to embrace a flat tax. He has helped to shepherd free-trade bills such as NAFTA, GATT and the China trade measure through Congress, effectively and fearlessly making the argument that they are critical to this nation's ability to compete in the global economy.

Mr. Crane told me last week he is ready to begin work on George W. Bush's tax plan if he ascends to the chairmanship, and expects to move legislation through the House early next year. Moreover, he believes the warning signs of a weakening economy will be the GOP's biggest ally in the struggle to overcome the Democrats' opposition to any meaningful tax-rate reduction.

"Bush's tax cuts are in many ways the perfect response to a slowdown or recession," Mr. Crane said. "Marginal rate reductions are a proven antidote to a slowdown. I expect to work closely with the president and the House leadership to move on these initiatives very quickly in Ways and Means."

Mr. Crane's opponent, the prickly and often disagreeable Bill Thomas, would give me no similar promise of swift action on tax cuts next year. Mr. Thomas' temper and often erratic personality have frequently angered his colleagues, and it was on display when I talked to him recently.

He was reluctant to make any statement of support for Mr. Bush's sweeping tax-cut plan. Even when pressed on it, would give only grudging comments that seemed to suggest little enthusiasm for a bold tax-rate reduction.

When I asked him if tax cuts would be the party's top priority next year, if he should become chairman, Mr. Thomas replied: "If the president sends me a plan and the House leadership believes it is the appropriate action to take, it certainly will be."

From the point of view of many of the tax-cutters in the House Republican caucus, Mr. Thomas in recent years has been fixated on debt payment rather than on cutting taxes. In virtually every scorecard of recorded votes kept by major tax-cutting groups, Mr. Crane has emerged as the more committed tax-cutter.

The difference between the two will be critical to the success of Republican efforts to give back a large portion of the huge budget surpluses that are piling up in the U.S. Treasury. George W. Bush ran on giving back at least $1.3 trillion out of an estimated $4.5 trillion in budget surpluses. New estimates from the Congressional Budget Office will push that surplus projection to more than $5 trillion in the next few months.

The consensus from the pundit class here, which never met a tax cut it really liked, is that the tighter Republican majority makes significant tax cuts much more difficult next year, if not impossible.

But the political dynamics that will shape that fight will dramatically change if the U.S. economy continues to soften. And the economic numbers that have been tumbling out of the government in the past few months suggest that is what is happening.

Vice President-elect Dick Cheney, clearly playing to that concern, says tax cuts are needed now more than ever because of unmistakable signs the economy is in decline. After several years of 4 percent to 5 percent growth, the nation's GDP is now running at about 2.4 percent, and is perhaps heading much lower.

"We may be on the front edge of a recession here," Mr. Cheney said. "I would hope that would change people's calculations with respect to the wisdom of the kind of tax cut that Gov. Bush has recommended."

That message has been picked up and strongly articulated by the House Republican leadership. "The slowing economy is an excellent argument for tax relief to make sure there is no recession," said John Feehery, House Speaker Dennis Hastert's chief spokesman.

The economic slowdown is Mr. Crane's biggest concern as well, he says. The fact he has been forcefully voicing this concern in closed-door leadership meetings, and enthusiastically embracing Mr. Bush's much-needed tax cuts to get the economy moving upward again, now makes him the odds-on choice to be the next Ways and Means chairman.

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