- The Washington Times - Friday, December 8, 2000

Amid 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. There is no more powerful committee in the House of Representatives than the Ways and Means Committee, which 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. Mr. Crane is a principled conservative who has been loyal to conservative ideas back from the days when the entire movement could have convened in a phone booth. Mr. Crane was always willing 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. Mr. 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. I remember that even our cameramen wanted his autograph. This was four years before he was elected to the House in a special election. Mr. Crane, the father of nine children, did develop a serious drinking problem in later years after he lost one of his daughters. In any case, Mr. Crane acknowledged the problem, got help and hasn’t taken a drink since.

While Mr. Crane has the reputation of a free-trader, he also is sympathetic to working class people whose jobs are at stake in this changing economy. When Mr. 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. Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. Reagan, but Mr. Thomas managed to do so. Mr. 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 Mr. Thomas has stayed away from even those kind of proposals. He did get tangled up with the health care debate. At the time Hillary Rodham Clinton was moving heaven and earth to pass her bill, and Republicans were doing everything they could to stop it, Mr. Thomas was viewed by some observers as being of little help in that battle. Friend and foe alike describe Mr. 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, Mr. Thomas has turned the contest into a regional fight. Arguing that Texas and Illinois have enough power in the House leadership as it is, Mr. 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 Mr. Thomas. By arguing regional politics, Mr. 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 Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom 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 hope that Mr. Crane is the next chairman of Ways and Means. If Mr. 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 Mr. Thomas and the real possibility of tax increases in some areas. He is, in Washingtonian terms, pragmatic.

Conservatives have everything to gain if Mr. Crane wins this race and everything to lose if Mr. Thomas wins. Right now Mr. Thomas is way ahead. Mr. Crane will have to 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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