Mailman vs. Farmer

Posted: Jun 02, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- After President Bush signed the tax cut last Wednesday, photos in the next morning's newspapers showed a broadly beaming Rep. Bill Thomas standing behind him after flying in from his Southern California district. Sen. Charles Grassley was nowhere to be seen and in fact stayed home in Iowa for town meetings. As House Ways and Means chairman, Thomas virtually wrote the bill. Grassley, Thomas's Senate counterpart as Finance Committee chairman, seemed irrelevant.

Nevertheless, appearances in Washington are often deceiving. While Thomas is so often described as a lawmaker who always delivers that he might be called the mailman, he is near the bottom in White House popularity. While Grassley is an Iowa hog farmer who often is preoccupied with rural interests, George W. Bush and his aides clearly prefer him to Thomas.

Praise for Thomas as the master legislator who saved the president's tax cut that seemed destined for oblivion does not extend to the West Wing of the White House. Thomas is blamed for a misleading interpretation of rules that prevented at least short-term repeal of dividend taxation. A critical Wall Street Journal editorial May 22 ("President Thomas") reflected the White House attitude and infuriated Thomas.

Never before in 46 years of Congress-watching have I seen such open hostility between the chairmen of the two tax-writing committees. On the day after an exasperated Thomas stalked out of a meeting with Grassley, the senator declared he would "educate" his House colleague in better manners. Before any such project can be undertaken, however, the two chairmen will be enmeshed in Medicare reform. That promises more trouble, based on their tax policy performance.

The outlook of Chuck Grassley, who embodies "Iowa Stubborn" as portrayed in "The Music Man," is anchored to his rural roots. What's more, he approached complicated national legislation with traditional log-rolling to win support of 51 senators by handing out customized special interest amendments. Thomas, viewing himself as making broad national tax policy, considered Grassley engaging in "rent-a-senator" tactics and insisted on getting rid of 44 Senate-passed amendments unrelated to tax cuts.

Having refused to permit House members to load the bill with their own schemes, Thomas could not agree to senators -- many of them Democrats -- doing the same thing. Worst of all was Grassley's own pet amendment (co-sponsored with his liberal Democratic colleague in Iowa, Sen. Tom Harkin) dealing with the rural hospitals in Iowa and costing about $35 billion over 10 years.

Grassley pleaded for these amendments, particularly his own, in heated face-to-face encounters with Thomas. Not known for suffering fools gladly, Thomas rolled his eyes. Complaining that Grassley was "too gabby," Thomas informed the senator that he had scheduled a session with Ways and Means Republicans at high noon and would leave at that hour. When Grassley insisted on discussing his Iowa amendment, Thomas walked. But all the Senate amendments were eliminated.

That triggered a largely ignored but exceptional press conference by Grassley May 23 after the cleaned-up bill passed. "I would hope to educate Mr. Thomas on the relationship and the respect he should have for someone of equal rank," said the senator. "I've never walked out on him." A few days later, Grassley told me his comments were "all tongue-in-cheek. Nobody is going to educate Thomas." Reporters attending the press conference thought Grassley was deadly serious.

Thomas declined a chance to shoot back at Grassley, but was steaming over a private letter by President Bush supporting Grassley on his Iowa hospital problem. Eliminated from this bill, the issue will come up again in the Medicare fight. That sets the scene for the next tumultuous collision between The Mailman and The Farmer.

The confrontation is more complicated on this issue. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the Senate's only physician, feels passionately about health issues and may eclipse Grassley in this area. In the House, Speaker Dennis Hastert has specialized in health care and is deeply involved with Thomas and Rep. Billy Tauzin, whose Energy and Commerce Committee shares jurisdiction. Furthermore, neither Hastert nor Frist is happy with the Bush administration's approach. The president is finding that making laws is less bloody but even more difficult than making war.