Farewell, Phil Gramm

Robert Novak

12/2/2002 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
WASHINGTON -- In valedictory comments to fellow conservative Republican senators, retiring Sen. Phil Gramm warned of "the tyranny of the inbox" -- letting events determine their agenda. "I reminded myself every single day," he told me, "that I came here with an agenda, and my agenda was not to empty that inbox. My agenda is to change the country. I don't get confused in running down these little rabbit trails that a lot of my colleagues do." Such blunt appraisals will be missed. Unlike many retiring senators, Gramm leaves the Senate after 18 years (following six years in the House) at the peak of his powers. He has been most impressive since his disastrous campaign for president in 1996, taking the Senate floor to deconstruct complicated legislation with revelations of pork, protectionism and runaway government. In a conversation at his Senate office as the current Congress neared adjournment, Gramm reflected his constancy: "It didn't take me long when I got here to figure out how bad government was, and I've never been willing to compromise. I haven't lost the ability to be outraged. The way we waste money to no good result is offensive." Gramm deplores the appropriations process, rejects the Theodore Roosevelt cult and wants to repeal the federal income tax. I first met Gramm when the late conservative activist Phil Nicolaides asked me to breakfast with the Texas A&M economics professor who was challenging Sen. Lloyd Bentsen in the 1976 Texas Democratic primary. I was stunned by Gramm's commitment to free markets and small government. I concluded, correctly, he had no chance to defeat Bentsen and, incorrectly, he never would be heard from again. Elected to Congress in 1978 at age 36, he rejected life as a conservative Democratic backbencher. When Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill kicked him off the Budget Committee in 1982 for collaborating with President Ronald Reagan, Gramm changed parties, resigned from Congress and triumphantly regained his House seat in a special election. To Gramm, Congress was a way station en route to the White House. In a city where many liberal journalists mock Gramm, he feels the news media were hostile to his presidential ambitions but not conclusive in their ruin. "I turned out to be a terrible candidate," he told me. "If America had had a crisis in 1996, like it did in 1980, maybe I would have won despite the fact I was a poor candidate." Without being president, Gramm has contributed more than any other public official in limiting government expenditures and was a principal killer of Clinton health care. He loved the Senate, but not its Appropriations Committee, where he spent six years. "It was a committee, where I could never be successful because the way deals are cut there is spending money," he said. What would he as president propose now? He is adamant for Social Security personal accounts, noting "the ability of Democrats to frighten seniors and change the voting pattern of people after they've retired is critical to their success." On tax reform, he is "completely convinced that the way to go is a consumption system," adding that "as long as you are taxing income, you got a problem." He expresses "a very high opinion" of George W. Bush despite being "very disappointed" by his steel tariffs. He disagrees with the president and most Republican politicians about the GOP's current hero: "I am not a Theodore Roosevelt man. In the end, he was very weak on private property, had a strong collectivist bent and saw government as an engine for good in a way that was fashionable." Gramm, at age 60, does not mouth the cliche politician's yearning for time with his family. "I hope and believe I will make a lot of money" as an investment banker, he told me. "I wanted to do something where there was a market test." If Bush seeks a knowledgeable and conservative secretary of the Treasury, what if he turned to his fellow Texan? Gramm indicated he would try to dissuade the president, then added: "One thing about being a zealot -- and I am a zealot -- is that you often have a hard time saying no."