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Dustup in the Ways & Means Committee: Pension Reform Gets Ugly

July 18th, 2003 | Paula Brantner

It wasn’t quite the WWE, but things got testy in a very partisan way before the House Ways & Means Committee today, as legislative passions became aroused in a manner very atypical of pension reform discussions. While there weren’t any fistfights, arrests, or censures, it wasn’t for lack of trying, as both Republicans and Democrats did their best to paint the other side guilty of egregious breaches of House protocol. Ultimately, however, the Republicans prevailed, as they often do in the House of Representatives, by passing a pro-business pension reform measure in the Democratic committee members’ absence and by evading the censure of Rep. Bill Thomas (R-CA), Ways and Means Committee Chairman.

The contretemps occurred as follows: Committee members were assembled at 10:00 a.m. on July 18 to take action on a pension reform measure (known as a “markup”). During the committee hearing, Democrats learned that the pension bill had been rewritten in the middle of the night, giving the minority party no opportunity to review the proposed legislation. The Committee’s senior Democrat, Rep. Charles B. Rangel, objected to the consideration of the bill, yet Chairman Thomas continued to proceed with the markup. Agreeing that it was time for some civil disobedience, committee Democrats left the hearing room to take refuge in an adjacent library, leaving behind only one Democratic member, Rep. Pete Stark, (D-CA) to engage in procedural maneuvers designed to delay consideration of the bill. Rep. Stark asked for a reading of the 91-page bill, which Chairman Thomas indulged only briefly before trying to gavel it to a close, giving Rep. Stark no further opportunity to object. (See Washington Post article.) Mr. Stark then grew agitated, prompting Rep. Scott McInnis to mutter, “Shut up.” (See New York Times article.)

A transcript reveals what followed:

Mr. Stark: “Oh you think you are big enough to make me, you little wimp? Come on. Come over here and make me. I dare you. You little fruitcake. You little fruitcake. I said you are a fruitcake.”

Mr. Thomas: “Recess is over. The classroom has been resumed.”

At some point–no one knows exactly when–Rep. Thomas summoned the Capitol Police to evict the recalcitrant Democrats from the library in which they were ensconced and to protect Rep. McInnis from further verbal abuse. The Capitol Police, after visiting the library and determining that the issue was more one of legislative protocol than national security, declined to take further action. Or, as one commentator put it: “in the only mature decision made that day, decided that they had better things to do than perform playground-monitor duty for a batch of squabbling children. They advised the honorables to settle their hash among themselves, and left.” (See Virginian-Pilot article.)

The Republicans, who hold a committee majority, then passed the bill that they had drafted in the Democrat committee members’ absence, sending the pro-business pension reform bill to the House floor. What was the substance of the bill that caused such a ruckus? Commentators say that the bill, as written, is a victory for the business community. If passed as is, the bill would allow companies to use a more favorable pension calculation that would save them from having to make tens of billions of dollars in pension contributions over the next three years, according to actuarial studies. (See New York Times article.)

The Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee rejected an administration proposal to overhaul the way pension values are calculated, which Treasury officials said would improve accuracy and ultimately increase the solvency of pension plans. The members also rejected a related administration proposal to make companies disclose more information about the health of their pension plans. The bill that now goes to the House would change pension calculations in a more modest way and would apply for the next three years, although the business community hopes to make this change permanent.

After the bill was passed by the Committee, outraged Democrats attempted to take action on the House floor to censure Chairman Thomas. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) took a point of personal privilege on the House floor in an attempt to have Rep. Thomas censured by the House. In Pelosi’s remarks on the floor, she said

It is clear that the Republicans are in denial about their behavior, and it is clear that the Democrats must draw a line in the sand on the repression of our rights in this Congress….What should be a stunning fact to the American people is that the Republicans in the House of Representatives need to be convinced that it is wrong to call the police to evict the Democratic colleagues from their meeting….The Greeks had a word for it — hubris — and it was about power, abusive power, arrogance. And it is a tragic flaw. We cannot allow your tragic flaw to shut down the voices of the American people.

None of the Republican House members were persuaded by Pelosi’s speech, however; the motion to censure Thomas for his actions failed in a vote along party lines. Rep. Stark ultimately apologized for his intemperate words, stating that he had “exchange[d] words that were not becoming of my office. I regret that.” And some Republicans are quietly muttering that Chairman Thomas’ behavior indicates that he may need to be replaced as committee chairman; however, no action has yet been taken. (See Fox News story.)

Whatever happens with pension reform, it is clear that partisan tensions have reached what might even be an all-time high. As Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (D-CT), a Republican Ways and Means member, said: “It wasn’t a day in which the dialogue amongst us was equal to the challenge of governance.”

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