With the blizzard of major legislative initiatives sweeping out of the White House these days, it’s easy for a casual viewer to be impressed (and confused). There’s health-care reform and ReGo and campaign- finance reform and NAFTA, to name just the biggies. But the results of all this activity may prove to be a good deal less than advertised. In the hope of understanding Bill Clinton’s legislative patterns, we’ve focused on the mother of all his efforts–the much-ballyhooed 1993 economic plan, which seemed to come and go so fast that some of us found ourselves asking, “Who was that masked delivery man, anyway?”
Last February 17, in a ringing speech that opened the curtain on his economic plan–his vision of how to cut a ballooning budget deficit and at the same time shift the nation’s priorities after a dozen years of Republican rule–Bill Clinton seemed to know what he was up against. “As soon as I leave this chamber and you go home, various interest groups will be out in force lobbying against this or that piece of this plan,” Clinton warned a joint session of Congress and a national TV audience. “We must begin again to make government work for ordinary taxpayers, not simply for organized interest groups.”
But saying it and knowing how to deal with it are two different things. Though Clinton and his aides had consulted with outside groups, including the representatives of various business sectors, as they were drawing up the plan–its generous provisions regarding real estate, for instance, were partly designed to win that industry’s support–they weren’t prepared for the bone-crunching clashes that lay ahead.
At the same time that Clinton was railing against lobbyists, he was indirectly lining their pockets. New initiatives always bring out those who want to maintain the status quo, and such business was more usual than ever this year, thanks to Clinton’s huge bundle of legislation. “We’ve really had a gangbuster year,” said Washington lobbyist Wright Andrews.
The barrage of direct mail, newspaper ads, phone calls, and other lobbyist-inspired pseudo-grassroots response (known on the Hill as Astroturf) leveled at Clinton dovetailed perfectly with his infamous preference for making everyone happy. Ironically, Senate Democrats caused Clinton nearly as much trouble as the Republicans on the filibuster-proof economic plan. Because every Democratic vote was crucial, many of Bill’s putative allies used their leverage to grandstand and extract whatever concessions they could from him. None postured more than Senator David Boren of Oklahoma, who, after waxing ecstatic about Clinton’s program and speech in February, flopped around, citing first one “problem” with it and then another.
The destruction–fueled by the American Petroleum Institute and other energy interests–of Bill’s broad-based energy tax left a huge revenue hole in the package that brought other lobbies to the fore. Among them was the American Association of Retired Persons, whose membership of thirty-three million awoke with a roar at the prospect of deeper Medicare cuts, and the incredibly well-connected American Trucking Association, which almost single-handedly broke Congress into squabbling factions over a proposed gas-tax increase.
Ultimately, it was the fear of visible failure that drove the passage of the bill. If Democrats, with control of both the White House and Congress, still couldn’t get anything done, the public would have seen them as truly useless. Despite everything, the Clinton economic plan, even as it was finally approved by Congress, was the most progressive piece of big legislation to come along in decades. But the bill was significantly different at the end of its ride: Clinton had lost the energy tax and wound up with a gas tax that he had campaigned against the previous year; he was unable to kill something as simple as the honeybee subsidy; he fell short on much of the “investment” spending he wanted to help reverse the Reagan-Bush agenda.
And the process left broken limbs everywhere. Clinton limped away with little momentum for other monumental struggles, like health-care reform, that matter much more directly to people.
The budget-bill chaos could be a blueprint for those battles. What hurt him most may have been that, after unveiling a detailed plan for reorienting the country, Clinton backslid and gave in as it came under attack by interest groups, the GOP, and would-be White House occupants from his own party. That’s why supporters of the North American Free Trade Agreement, for example, have been quick to criticize any move by Clinton that hints at anything less than boundless enthusiasm for the accord.
For those involved in health reform, campaign-finance reform, the coming welfare overhaul, and other slugfests, Clinton has to show more committment to delivering what he promises, and not leave his supporters twisting slowly in the wind.
Viveca Novak is a correspondent for the National Journal.
A funny thing happened on the way from the White House to your house.
COMES A CATTLEMAN
In March, Democratic Senator Max Baucus of Montana and a posse of other western lawmakers cornered Clinton in the White House and told him to back off his plan to up mining royalties and grazing and timber fees on public lands. Within a week, he did, in effect giving the nod to other special interests to try their luck. (Clinton later used administrative means to try to raise grazing fees.)
ATTACK OF THE PEROTDACTYL
The same day in May that Clinton visited Congress to defend his energy tax and to try to postpone a vote on entitlement caps, H. Ross Perot was down the hall telling freshman Republicans that Clinton’s plan was all “tax and spend.” Later, Perot went on the Sunday talk shows to attack the plan, but couldn’t even answer simple questions about what he would do instead.
The American Trucking Association ran back and forth over a proposed gas tax until it was nearly flat, joining with low-income consumer groups and placing full-page ads in national newspapers. A puny 4.3c gas tax finally passed.
In April, stock-car drivers from the NASCAR racing circuit swarmed around Congress to protest cuts in business entertainment deductions from 80 percent to 50 percent. The hotel and restaurant union and tourism and convention lobbies joined in. Somehow, Bill actually won on this one.
THE DRILLERS ARE HERE
The American Petroleum Institute denounced Bill’s BTU energy tax as a “job-killer.” By April 1, Bill was offering exemptions to Big Coal, Big Oil, Big Gas, and Big Ethanol. The American Energy Alliance hired PR giant Burson-Marsteller to help kill the tax. In May, big Demo David Boren flip-flopped, sealing its fate. Soon, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen surrendered on national TV.
PORK-BARREL-BELLIED TROUGH FEEDERS
A June letter from a former president of the American League of Lobbyists brazenly solicited funds from members to “do” three senators. The American Society of Association Executives–with help from the League, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and others–fought to scuttle Bill’s plan to cut the lobbying deduction. But Bill won most of what he wanted.
FLIGHT OF THE SNOWBIRDS
The thirty-three-million-member American Association of Retired Persons joined the Congressional Black Caucus and other groups to beat proposals by conservatives for entitlement caps, which were intended to replace revenue lost when Bill’s BTU tax went down.
BOB & THE NASTY BOYS
In March, Senate Republican honcho Bob Dole had a Big Mac and fries with Bill, not long after the Prez gave a cake and sang “Happy Birthday” to House Republican leader Bob Michel. when the singing stop-ped, the filibuster began, which axed the stimulus bill in April. The Repubs attacked piece after piece of Bill’s plan. In July, they unveiled a radio campaign with the theme music from Jaws.
THE MISSING MONEY TREE
Starting in late March, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and Kellogg blasted Bill’s proposal to hike taxes on their overseas operations. Drug companies with factories in Puerto Rico fought to keep a lucrative tax break. Others hacked away at the corporate tax increase. In the end, Bill won a few and lost a few.