For House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois, this will be a testing year. His party, brimming with confidence and cohesion a few months ago is suddenly coming unglued and it sometimes appears that the 192 House Republicans are offering close to 192 alternatives to President Reagan’s proposed budget.
Whether Michel can impose discipline on his increasingly unruly charges may determine.the fate of the Reagan Administration and its economic program and the outcome of November’s elections.
Like any congressional leader whose party controls the White House, Michel must perform the delicate task of serving as both “the President’s man” and “Congress’s man.” As a leading strategist for Reagan’s program, he must also make sure that the views of his congressional colleagues are taken into account at the White House.
Michel, who was elected Minority Leader a few weeks before Reagan took office, played a critical role last year in helping to steer the President’s spending and tax cut packages to narrow victories. The Democratic-controlled House held life-or-death power over Reagan’s budget -the President easily got his way in the Republican Senate -and practically every Republican vote, along with those of some conservative Democrats, was needed to carry the day. Even Michel would quickly acknowledge, however, that Reagan was his own best salesman and that his principal job as Minority Leader was to resolve relatively narrow, though often thorny, controversies.
From early indications, 1982 will be a much different story. Michel, a 25-year House veteran whose geniality and plainspokenness befit his roots in Peoria, Ill., may well emerge as the Member of Congress holding the biggest guns in the continuing budget battle. The Administration may be far more dependent this year on his judgment of what can and should pass in a Congress with divided party control. Other Members, including House Democrats and Senate leaders, will probably be seeking Michel’s support.
“He’s the key guy for House Republicans and President Reagan,” said Richard B. Cheney of Wyoming, chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee. “His skills will help determine what we put together for this year’s budget.”
High unemployment and interest rates and the frosty congressional reaction to Reagan’s proposed fiscal 1983 budget, with its $91.5 billion deficit, have convinced Michel that Reagan cannot repeat his legislative performance of last year.
“I’d like to say it will work out the same way, but I think many Republicans won’t vote for the budget,” Michel said in a Feb. 9 interview. “There is no question we will have to be bipartisan in the House and do so openly and candidly. Jim Jones has held out the prospect of achieving a bipartisan budget, and I’m willing to do what I can.” James R. Jones, D-Okla., is chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Michel carried that message two days later to a meeting with Reagan and about a half-dozen senior White House officials at which Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee and Sen. Paul Laxalt, R-Nev., Reagan’s longtime confidant, were also present. Befitting his role as Congress’s man, Michel told Reagan that ‘-we three are his strong supporters on the Hill and want him to succeed, but if we have to make adjustments in the program, we’ll do that.”
“I’ll explore almost anything,” Michel said before the White House meeting. “I want action now. We can’t wait five years for the economy to improve if Republicans are flushed down the tube in the meantime.” READER AND LEADER
This year’s Republican turmoil and economic uncertainty are tailor-made for the House Minority Leader, who, according to an aide, is fond of saying, “The best position at the start of a debate is to have your feet firmly planted in mid-air.”
Michel is an experienced legislative craftsman who knows how to count votes and win a majority. As he demonstrated during countless meetings on last spring’s package of budget cuts, he has considerable patience in listening to all viewpoints but, when the time is ripe for action, can be forceful in making a decision and urging support for it. “By constantly making certain you’re in the process, he creates a moral or political obligation to vote for the final product,” said Thomas J. Tauke of lowa, a leader of the moderate “gypsy moth” Republicans with whom Michel met frequently to fashion a compromise on the spending plan.$T”He is a fascinating reader as well as a leader,” said a veteran House GOP aide. “He’ll spend weeks just sensing the mood among Republicans and will probably have more one-on-ones than anyone to find out what Members need and want.”
Rep. Tom Loeffler of Texas, a Republican deputy whip who has served as his liaison to the “boll weevil” Democrats, said Michel has “an open door” for anyone who wants to talk to him. Once he has heard all the suggestions, “he assimilates them, decides this is what we’re going to do and then sells it,” Loeffler said. “He’s an expert in the legislative process, and his many years on the Appropriations Committee have given him a good knowledge of the budget. He’s handmade for leadership.”
Unlike many of the young House Republican firebrands, Michel also can “walk the aisles” to discuss prospects with leading Democrats. Although he can be a tough partisan battler, he is respected for his fairness by, among others, Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. of Massachusetts, an occasional golfing partner.
The rapid turnover of House seats and leadership positions has left Michel, 58, in a position akin to that of a scoutmaster. With the retirement at the end of this year of John J. Rhodes of Arizona, whose decision last year to step aside as Minority Leader paved the way for Michel, he and William S. Broomfield of Michigan will become the longest-serving Republicans. Of the 192 GOP House Members, 90 were not in Congress before 1979. The other leading members of Michel’s leadership team -GOP whip Trent Lott of Mississippi, Conference chairman Jack F. Kemp of New York and Policy Committee chairman Cheney -are all relatively young and were chosen for their positions at the same time Michel defeated Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan to become party leader.
While the Democratic leadership meets at least once daily, Michel’s team usually meets just once a week. They generally have worked well together, although Kemp’s recent, highly publicized budget proposals and criticisms of the Federal Reserve Board have drawn increasing complaints from colleagues who say that he is undermining his influence by refusing to be a team player. (For a report on Kemp, see this issue, p. 341.)
Michel makes good use of several experienced aides: longtime chief of staff Ralph Vinovich, who previously was an aide to Senate Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen; legislative counsel Hyde H. Murray, a former aide on the House Agriculture Committee; and floor assistant William R. Pitts, an expert in House procedures.
In coordinating the effort to piece together a Republican package of spending cuts in last year’s budget reconciliation bill, Michel and his staff worked patiently for two weeks last June in a meeting room adjacent to his Capitol office with Administration officials, conservative Democrats and Republican members of House committees handling the separate parts of the package. Although House Members made their imprint on the package, the most influential and aggressive actor was Office of Management and Budget director Dave Stockman. According to a House aide who is not on his staff, Michel took “personal affront” at Stockman’s brash and uncompromising style but swallowed his pride in the interest of reaching agreement.
The Michel-Stockman relationship broke down when, soon after the House passed the bill, Stockman urged the Senate to accept the House package because he feared that a conference committee might fail to reach a compromise between the House and Senate versions. Michel took offense at Stockman’s intrusion into congressional prerogatives and won Baker’s support for a conference committee. Since then, Michel and Stockman have been distant, and the budget director has worked more closely with Senate Republicans, especially Budget Committee chairman Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., according to an informed source.
In contrast to their Senate counterparts, many House Republicans, including Michel, felt it was unwise for Stockman to continue to press last fall for more spending cuts and revenue increases so soon after Reagan’s summer victories. Their coolness toward the budget director, a former House colleague, was increased by the article about him in last December’s Atlantic Monthly. RESTLESS TROOPS
Once again this year, the budget is already dominating congressional attention -and especially Michel’s. The Minority Leader pays scant attention to non-budget issues and generally allows Republicans to go their own way on them.
Not so with the budget. Along with other GOP congressional leaders, Michel met several times with Reagan before he announced his 1983 budget, arguing unsuccessfully for smaller increases in defense spending and larger increases in federal revenues to reduce the deficit.
To Michel, Reagan’s decision is not necessarily the last word. “If what you perceive as a good program has some flaws,” he said, “my inclination is to be willing to admit you went too far and the result needs corrective surgery.”
So far, Reagan has shown no signs of being a willing patient. While expressing his readiness to listen to their suggestions, Reagan told congressional Republicans in a Feb. 13 letter, “This is no time for turning back.”
But Michel is Congress’s man as well as the President’s. “The deficit for many is mind boggling,” he said, “especially for the young freshmen who came here thinking they could be instrumental in eliminating budget deficits. Their commander-in-chief presented a deficit they never contemplated. A couple have already told me flat out not to expect them to vote for anything of that magnitude.”
Whether Michel can devise any budget strategy that can win majority support is problematical. If it was difficult last year just to maintain virtually unanimous Republican support for the President’s spending and tax cut packages, it will be doubly so this year, and any budget coalition may have to take on a more bipartisan hue.
Cheney, for one, believes that once the shock of the proposed $91.5 billion deficit wears off, Congress will get down to work and draw up a more practical document. “There is a tendency,” he said, “to look at the broad outlines and say, ‘We can’t pass it.’ After the Members have looked at the other options, which are not attractive, they will make some changes, but I assume we’ll pass a budget by May.”
Michel has not publicly offered his own alternatives, but his comments sugit that he remains interested in cutting Reagan’s proposed defense budget. “I would not foreclose revenue enhancements to narrow the gap,” he added.
Any tax increases, he said, should come in “a couple of big chunks” and not “a billion dollars here, a billion dollars there,” as with the excise tax increases that many Reagan advisers recommended but that Michel objected to because of their adverse impact on the average beer drinker and cigarette smoker. Proposed tax increases should be “achievable,” he said, and that rules out repeal of last year’s individual rate cuts and accelerated depreciation schedules for businesses that were the core of Reagan’s economic program.
As Michel listens to his GOP colleagues, he will hear a wide variety of alternatives, perhaps the most interesting coming from conservatives who favor a two-year freeze on spending while preserving the tax cut enacted last summer.
Rep. Denny Smith of Oregon conceded his plan is “simplistic” because it ignores such problems as increases in military procurement costs and the growth in the number of elderly recipients of federal benefits, but he said the concept would be valuable in helping Congress reorder priorities and face problems such as social security, which has been considered too sensitive to deal with this session. Asked how Republicans who campaigned in 1980 against the Democrats for weakening the nation’s defense could support such a plan when Reagan has recommended a $33 billion increase in defense spending, he said: “I know we need a strong defense, but without a strong economy it doesn’t make a difference. We’ve already increased the spending and we can only afford to give so much at one time, especially when no one is shooting at the United States.”
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the spending freeze is that it would eliminate the 1983 cost-of-living adjustments for social security and other entitlement programs. W. Eugene (Gene) Johnston, R-N.C., a House Budget Committee member and co-sponsor of Smith’s proposal, said he would push for that change when the panel considers the 1983 budget. “Interest rates won’t come down until inflationary expectations come down,” he said. “I’m not proposing that we cut anyone,just that we hold the line.”
Rep. William E. Dannemeyer, RCalif., prepared a detailed plan last year for balancing the budget in fiscal 1982 and expects to do the same this year. Rather than an across-the-board freeze, he has advocated the elimination of scores of agencies and big reductions in many federal programs, including $16 billion in defense savings primarily through improved management and more competitive bidding in contract awards. Dannemeyer was unable to secure a House vote on the proposal last year but said Michel and Lott have promised to help him fight with Democratic leaders for a vote in 1982.
Dannemeyer, who tried to stir up opposition last year to the spending targets that all Republicans eventually supported, added that even a $50 billion deficit in fiscal 1983 would be intolerable and unsupportable unless he was convinced that the nation was moving toward a balanced budget in 1984. “I respect what Bob Michel and others are doing to try to control spending,” he said, “but I’ve been sent here by a constituency who wants me to use whatever power I have to reduce federal spending, and I will be very careful about voting for anything else.”
Rep. Hank Brown of Colorado has filed a bill demonstrating that some GOP freshmen are willing to support steps that could have an adverse local impact. Brown, who said his district includes 80 per cent of the nation’s commercially recoverable oil shale, wants to abolish the Synthetic Fuels Corp. and the “corporate welfare” he said it distributes.
“I’m convinced that we’re at a point of precipitating an economic crisis in this country because of our fiscal policies,” Brown said. “We have to decide whether we want money for social security or a subsidy for the oil companies. I strongly favor synthetic fuel development, including in my district, but the two big plants there that already have been started could continue without the subsidy.” (For a report on the Synthetic Fuels Corp., see NJ, 2/6/82, p. 228.)
At the same time that the conservatives, most of them from the South and West, are seeking major spendingcuts, moderate Republicans from the Northeast and Midwest are pushing plans that appear irreconcilable. Tauke said the gypsy moth group, whose support for the Administration has run as high as about 30 votes on some issues, is preparing a two-fold plan that would shift Reagan’s spending priorities by transferring $10 billion to $15 billion from defense to domestic programs and cut the deficit by increasing taxes -primarily corporate taxes -by $10 billion to $20 billion.
“If we can reach agreement, we will try to get majority support in the Republican Conference,” Tauke said. “I think these ideas have strong support there. Following that, we would go to the Democrats for their support.” (For a report on the gypsy moths, see NJ, 10/31/81, p. 1946.)
But Republican agreement may not be easy to achieve. Leaders of both the moderate and conservative wings of the GOP have become less willing in recent months to accommodate each other’s views. Moderates such as Tauke believe a House majority cannot be attained without their participation but that a bipartisan consensus can be built without the conservatives. Conservative Johnston said, “It may be that the Republican Party will define itself so that we’ll lose some of our members to the other party, but I believe the country is better offwith two parties each representing an economic philosophy.”
The challenge facing Michel will be to fashion a compromise to which some sort of a bipartisan coalition can subscribe.
“I would never want a bipartisan alternative to get too far afield from the thrust of the White House position,” he said, but “1 have to let them know what we can do in order to get something through the House. I wouldn’t want to obstruct that.” SEEKING A COALITION
Michel’s decision to seek a budget compromise with House Democrats may make it impossible for him to meet the demands of his own party’s conservative members. Pursuing the more moderate course, at least for the time being, probably increases the prospect of finding a majority, perhaps even one that most Republicans will ultimately support, but it carries greater risks and uncertainties for both parties.
Budget Committee chairman Jones hoped to build a broad bipartisan coalition last year but was disappointed when no Republicans showed interest in his plan. If a different script is followed this year, a key participant could be Ralph S. Regula of Ohio, one of the Budget Committee’s GOP moderates.
“I think we can get a bipartisan budget,” said Regula. “That’s my goal. The guy who is unemployed doesn’t care whether it’s a Republican budget or Democratic budget… . For this to happen, Bob Michel and Tip O’Neill have to give tacit approval for some Members to put together a package. We can’t do it if both parties play hard ball.”
Michel has been quietly making overtures to the Democrats for months. Two senior Democratic aides said that Pitts, Michel’s floor assistant, has informally urged them and their bosses to keep the bipartisan door open. A Republican aide said Jones has done the same.
In addition, Michel and Jones and their aides have been attempting to resolve procedural disagreements. From this effort emerged the bipartisan agreement not to challenge three supplemental appropriations bills passed by the House on Feb. 9. Some budget experts contend that the bills technically violated the Congressional Budget Act because they forced the 1982 deficit higher than the one in the budget adopted by Congress last year.
But it is a long step from what Michel calls “institutional bipartisanship” designed to expedite the internal workings of the House to a bipartisan budget. Many problems stand in the way.
For Michel, the most immediate one may be the public embrace given Reagan’s budget by Delbert L. Latta, the senior Republican on the Budget Committee. Latta’s stance, which some Republican Members view as intransigence, could force the Minority Leader into the awkward position of working around the Republican Party’s top spokesman on budget issues in the House.
GOP leaders resolved a comparable problem on a smaller scale last year when Latta resisted accepting Democrat Phil Gramm of Texas as a co-sponsor of its budget alternative. If Latta does not impose serious obstacles, Regula and Bill Frenzel of Minnesota, another moderate Budget Committee Republican, could provide a bridge between Jones and Michel.
As for the Democrats, a Budget Committee aide said that Jones wants to prepare a budget that attracts as many House votes as possible and that he does not need O’Neill’s approval to seek Republican support. But others questioned whether Jones would be willing to incur the wrath of O’Neill and other Democrats for helping the Republicans out of their budget predicament. SPEAKER SOME DAY?
While attention has focused on legislative budget strategy, some Republicans believe Michel and other GOP leaders should address the budget primarily from an electoral perspective.
A year ago, many Republicans felt they could win the 26 seats needed in 1982 to take control of the House. But with the recession and continued high deficits, pessimism has pervaded GOP ranks, and few hold out much hope that they can avoid losing House seats in November. At least one Republican contends the party should revive its old spirit of opposition.
“The best Republican strategy is to recognize that the Democrats run the House and will do all they can to butcher the budget,” said Newt Gingrich of Georgia. “We should point out their obstruction from now until November and emphasize the opportunities of the Reagan budget. Bob Michel should relax, concentrate on the impotence of Tip O’Neill and refuse to take up the burden of being Speaker himself.”
Michel disagrees. “I don’t perceive my role as taking the budget issue to the voters,” he said. “I have to look at what’s achievable for the good of the country. We have to deal with various bills or the government comes to a halt.”
In the Republican euphoria of a year ago, many House Members regarded Michel as the de facto Speaker, waiting only to take the formal title. Public opinion polls show that a significant portion of the public believes the Republicans already control the House.
Michel would love the formal title some day. But in the meantime, he must deal on a daily basis with Democratic control of the legislative process and is under no delusions that he is in charge now or will soon become Speaker.
Instead, he will have to be content to use his position as leader of a large but increasingly divided minority to try to come up with a dose of budgetary medicine that a majority of the House can swallow.