If Sen. Russell Long, chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, ever has the time, he could write a fascinating tale of how he manipulates arid controls northern Democratic liberals on his committee. But he can’t stop manipulating to find the time.
Long, son of the Kingfish — the late Sen. Huey Long of Louisiana —abandoned his father’s populism years ago. The Louisiana Fox is the leading congressional perforator of the tax code on behalf of business interests. In fact, he has crawled through a few loopholes himself as a self-declared oil multi-millionaire. In recent weeks, Long has been treating the public to his techniques in reducing committee liberals, allegedly committed to tax reform, to surrender without much loathing. It’s as if Long has got them high on novocain.
All the liberals do not exhibit the same quality of subservience. Senators Floyd Haskell, D-Colo., and William Hathaway, D-Maine, do try and resist a few times at the open committee meetings. But Senators Abraham Ribicoff, D-Conn., Walter Mondale, D-Minn., and Gaylord Nelson, D-Wisc., give Long little trouble and, indeed, often go along with Long’s proposals.
Current developments make it particularly important to examine how Long controls his committee liberals. The House passed a modest tax reform bill, diminishing some of the tax shelters and corporate tax gimmicks which have made the wealthy and multinationals revise the old battle cry into “no taxation with representation.”
Over in Long’s crafty domain, this mild reform, already watered down in the House after lobbying visits by platoons of corporate executives, is withering away rapidly.
Apart from letting the liberals know that he is prepared to wear and tear them down and use his chairman’s prerogatives of staff and rules to seize numerous advantages, Long tailors his strategies to the susceptibilities of each senator. He knows their priority legislative interests and trades off with each one.
To Mondale he gives small amendments dealing with child care and in return obtains support or neutrality.
To Ribicoff he offers his personal friendship and wrong, but superficially plausible, reasons as to how investment tax credits, accelerated depreciation and export tax subsidies are supposed to create jobs. As Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., caustically observed in a statement pledging a fight for tax reform on the Senate floor: “‘Loopholes for the rich make jobs for the poor’ is the argument the lobbyists always parrot when the shadow of tax reform flies across their sun.”
Long knows that Nelson has his energies elsewhere — in the Labor Committee or on environmental or drug company reform. So he often moves his proposals with little advance notice for Nelson or his staff to digest the material.
In an extraordinary moment earlier this month (Finance Committee meetings are now open to the public), Nelson blew up at Long and demanded that he slow down the loophole assembly line. A few days later, Nelson, a gentle soul, became mild again and returned to his weak role on the committee.
Close observers of Capitol Hill have used the words “tired liberals” to describe the way relentless congressional reactionaries run roughshod over them, even when they are in a majority. These reactionaries often become No. 1 because they try harder and are almost never absent from their duties, as liberals on the committee often are.
Here is a suggestion to the tired and discouraged liberals. You need a citizen support structure to give you the necessary metabolism. Get behind legislation for a taxpayer checkoff system on all tax returns, enabling taxpayers to make voluntary contributions for establishing a democratically structured taxpayer watchdog group.
This group would be open to all contributors — one contributor, one vote for the council of directors. The council would retain a fulltime staff of organizers, economists, accountants, lawyers, writers and other skilled people to watch the tax laws, their administration, and the way the federal government spends taxpayers’ funds.
In that way, without creating a government agency or raising taxes, a grassroots organization with a strong Washington presence will more than counterbalance the Longs and the Exxons.
If you are interested, liberal tax reformers, write to Tax Reform Research Group, P.O. Box 14198, Washington, D.C. 20044, for more details.
And in the short run, write to your senators and tell them to support the tax reforms to be proposed by Kennedy and others on the floor of the Senate in early June. It’s time the senators stopped tolerating one-man obstructionism on tax reform.