After Many Years, It’s Rangel’s Turn at the Helm
WASHINGTON, Jan. 7 — It is the committee that produced the Social Security and Medicare laws, that created the modern welfare state and reinvented it in the 1990s, that raised taxes and slashed them, again and again and again. No committee, arguably, has more power or attracts more lobbyists than the Committee on Ways and Means. House members sometimes wait for years for a seat on it, then for decades to rise in seniority.
Representative Charles B. Rangel, Democrat of New York, joined the committee in 1975, and now, at the age of 76, has finally arrived at the very top. He takes the chairmanship of the 41-member panel, with a new majority of 24 Democrats, at a moment fraught with risk and possibility. Over the next two years, the committee will play a central role in defining, and financing, the Democratic Party’s agenda after 12 years out of power.
In its sprawling meeting rooms (decorated with heroic portraits of chairmen past), the committee will now have to deal with all the Democrats’ conflicting promises, barely submerged tensions and competing visions from last year’s midterm elections.
The language may be arcane, the legislation incremental, but the issues before the members touch the lives of millions of Americans as they grapple with a changing and sometimes unsettling economy: how to balance the demands of globalization with the fears of many Americans that free trade no longer works for them. How to abide by the principles of fiscal responsibility, while investing in education, health care and other core benefits for an increasingly anxious middle class.
How to maintain the benefits and control the costs in Medicare as the first wave of baby boomers retires. What to do about the huge Bush tax cuts that begin to expire in 2010, a tempting target for liberals but a political landmine for Democrats trying to avoid the old charge of “taxing and spending.”
All over Washington, lobbyists, tax lawyers and business leaders, with vast amounts of corporate wealth and power on the line, are acutely focused on the committee — and on the man who now leads it. Moments after the Democratic transfer of power became official Thursday, Mr. Rangel walked across the crowded Capitol to a reception for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a fellow New York Democrat, and almost everyone he passed offered a hand, a cheek, a business card, a heartfelt (and occasionally groveling) congratulation.
“Mr. Chairman, what do I do, kneel, genuflect, what?” one woman said. Another man, suddenly recognizing the chairman, blurted out: “We’ve got to set up a meeting!” One after another asked, almost meekly, “Can I give you my card?” Mr. Rangel seemed utterly enchanted by it all. When he arrived at the reception, he joined the other alpha male in the room, Mrs. Clinton’s husband, and settled happily into small talk, surrounded by flashing cameras, filming cellphones and beaming onlookers.
Mr. Rangel acknowledged, with a laugh, that he is now treated quite differently by the business and lobbying community. “I would be doing the same thing, to be honest with you,” he said. “You’ve got to get along with the people who make the decisions and chair the committees.” For example, Mr. Rangel added, business leaders consumed with expanding trade are suddenly displaying (at least in his presence) a “more sensitive understanding of the pain that it causes some people.” It is, in short, good to be king.
Mr. Rangel is in some ways an unlikely leader for the new Democratic Party, which regained its Congressional majority in large part because of suburban voters, often in very competitive districts. The first black representative to lead the committee, Mr. Rangel comes from an urban and exceedingly safe district; it had the largest margin of Democratic presidential votes in the country in 2004, with just 9 percent going to President Bush, according to the Almanac of American Politics.
Since he won his seat in 1970, defeating Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in a Democratic primary, Mr. Rangel has been easily re-elected, and able to deliver the federal largess that seniority brings. His district has had only two congressmen in more than 60 years.
Mr. Rangel is, by most measures, a liberal, although he said in an interview last month that he would no more be a “Harlem chairman” than Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, would be a “San Francisco speaker.” After 12 agonizing years in the minority, when friends urged him to leave the House and give up the distant prospect of the chairmanship, he says he is determined to make the job work and get things done. That means building consensus and reaching out, not just in his own party but across the aisle, to Congressional Republicans and the Bush administration.
He cannot work the way his predecessor, Representative Bill Thomas of California, did — by driving his own party hard and winning votes by absolute party unity. “Democrats don’t work in lockstep,” Mr. Rangel said. And even if they did, any purely partisan legislation faces the possibility of a presidential veto.
All this political caution and elaborate bipartisanship does not come easily to Mr. Rangel. He is given to speaking his mind, recently affirming, for example, his support for a return of the draft to highlight the unequal sharing of the burden of war. It is not a popular position, and Mr. Rangel said his party leaders “kindly” reminded him that “it wasn’t in my jurisdiction.”
During the midterm campaign, Republicans repeatedly, and at times successfully, tried to provoke Mr. Rangel. Vice President Dick Cheney said, at one point, that Mr. Rangel “doesn’t understand how the economy works” and would return to taxing and spending; Mr. Rangel unloaded in turn.
Now, he is trying hard to be restrained, about Mr. Bush, his administration and his tax cuts. When asked about Mr. Bush’s renewed insistence last week that Congress extend those tax provisions, Mr. Rangel paused and said, with almost visible effort, “Part of what I think is my responsibility is not to be critical of the president.”
He brushes off speculation about his party’s plans for the Bush tax cuts, many of which have been criticized by Democrats for years as a giveaway to the richest Americans; it is simply premature, he argues, since their expiration date is three years off. Stan Collender, a longtime budget analyst, says it makes no political sense for Congress to “deal with tax cuts before you have to, certainly not before the 2008 election.”
This almost painfully careful discussion underscores the stakes of the Ways and Means Committee’s agenda. This month, to set a framework for the discussion of the president’s budget, the committee will hold broad hearings on the state of the nation’s economy; those will be followed by more hearings on the budget itself, expected in early February. With the president’s fast-track authority to negotiate trade agreements expiring this summer, the debate over globalization will also be quickly joined.
Chairmen of the 218-year-old committee have traditionally been at the center of the great debates, including how to support a growing elderly population and how to deal with the excesses of capitalism. They often deal directly with presidents — Wilbur Mills with Lyndon Johnson, Dan Rostenkowski with Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush — and are linked to the great accomplishments of their eras. (They can also take major political falls, as did Mr. Mills and Mr. Rostenkowski.)
The chairmanship does not carry the power it once did; changes in House rules and political practice reined in the “old bulls.” But Mr. Rangel, who plans to fly to Chicago this month and confer with Mr. Rostenkowski, is already thinking about his legacy.
“I’m 76, and I can’t afford the luxury just to gridlock,” he said.
Still, there are real fault lines, even within his party. The recent elections showed a resurgent populism, a new skepticism on trade and a new alarm that global competition translates into lower wages and shakier benefits for too many Americans. Democrats who embraced free trade under President Bill Clinton are now having second thoughts.
Liberals like Robert B. Reich, the former secretary of labor, argue that the new Congress must provide “more economic security at home,” like affordable health insurance or better pension protection, to cushion workers in this rough, new, competitive environment. But at the same time, many Democrats argue that the Clinton-era emphasis on deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility must be restored, raising the question of how all their new spending (not to mention a fix to the alternative minimum tax) will be paid for.
Jared Bernstein, a liberal economist, said: “When the Ways and Means Committee has worked well, they’ve identified social needs and advocated for the funds to meet them. Will this committee do that? I hope so.”
Republicans, for their part, say they want to work with the Democrats where they can, in particular to “change the tone” on the committee after years of bitter partisanship, as Representative Jim McCrery of Louisiana, the panel’s senior Republican, put it. But the ideological gulf between the two parties is vast, not just on tax cuts, but on the role of government versus the private market in areas like health care.
Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, one of the influential young conservatives on the committee, says he fears that the Democrats’ policies will inevitably lead to abolishing “the pro-growth Bush tax cuts” and pushing Medicare back toward a “one-size-fits-all government monopoly.”
All of this now faces Mr. Rangel — an extraordinarily difficult job that he won, in part, by simply enduring. As he did his victory lap across the Capitol last week, he said he had no regrets. He could not stop smiling.