WASHINGTON — Presidential candidate, Wilbur Mills, the Congressional powerhouse from Little Rock, is troubled over the gathering revolt against the iron grip of his House Ways and Means Committee. If there is to be tax reform, it must start with this “house within a house.” Ways and Means is Mills’ bastion. He presides over the other 24 members directly, tolerating no subcommittees. His knowledge of the tax code, his years of seniority, and the powers he has as Chairman justify his moniker “Mr. Tax.” He is the one man who can say yes or no to a tax bill and have his position prevail with both Houses of Congress.
But tax reform groups and sympathetic members of the House. of Representatives arc going after the underpinnings of the Mills autocracy. Their drive is exposing the way special interest tax legislation and loopholes are rammed through the Congress.
First of all, Mills decides whether there will be hearings, how long they will run and who will appear. He does consult other members of the committee but prohibits them from bringing any of their staff into the committee’s executive sessions where bills are marked up for transmission to the floor of the House. The discussion gets technical but the committee members cannot bring in any economic or tax specialists to participate. Only the committee’s staff (i.e., Mills’ staff) and representatives of the Treasury Department are allowed in with the members during these closed sessions.
Not only does this practice repudiate the separation of powers provided for by the Constitution but it gives Treasury lobbyists powers inside the committee that the committee’s own members cannot exercise.
Next, a tax bill is reported out to the House floor with a “closed rule.” This means that no representative can amend the bill, no matter how outrageous or inequitable it may be. They only can vote yes or no. That has meant, until recently, that Wilbur Mills always gets what he wants.
What the “closed rule” says in simple language is that 95 percent of the members of the House cannot represent the taxpayers back home on pending tax legislation. Most voters are not aware that this violates, in the words of Representative Bella Abzug, “our constituents’ right to have their representatives — even the ones not fortunate enough to be on the Ways and Means Committee — represent their interests in the process of formulating legislation.”
Chairman Mills behaves as if getting his bills through the House is a formal nuisance. The Revenue Act of 1971, providing the largest corporate tax cut in history and numerous other bonanzas for corporations, was debated on the House floor for 90 minutes and quickly brought to a vote the next day by Mills when only 30 congressmen were present.
Mills knows that keeping the members of his exclusive committee happy will insulate further his power from any challenge. Over the years he has permitted them one or two “members’ bills” a year without hearings and sweeps them through the House without debate under a pre-arranged technique called the “consent calendar.” These members’ bills very often open indefensible loopholes for particular companies, industries or wealthy estates.
It is at this traditional point of privilege that tax reformers, led by Congressmen Wright Patman and Les Aspin, struck earlier this year when they blocked 18 out of 22 “members’ bills.” Mills was stunned but promised cryptically to find “another way to pass them.”
Why, a citizen might ask, didn’t a member of the House challenge this abuse years ago? Because the House is a fraternity, with unwritten rules and sanctions, that hitherto have been enforced by an attitude of cooperation and symbiosis among the senior magnates. Andthe younger members adhered to former Speaker Sam Rayburn’s admonition that “you get along by going along.”
Times are changing and courage is creeping into the House of Representatives. If enough citizens support the challengers, a much fairer federal tax system can’t be far behind.