TOPICS > Politics

Power Shift: Bill Thomas

January 5, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Now to a newsmaker interview with one of the new Republican leaders. Bill Thomas is beginning his 12th term representing California’s 21st district; he’s been a member of the Ways and Means Committee since 1983. As head of its subcommittee on health, he’s been a leader on Medicare and Social Security issues, recently co-chairing the national Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare. He now takes over as chairman of the full Ways and Means Committee. And welcome to the program.

REP. BILL THOMAS: Thank you, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk a little bit about process. Under the old rules, even though you’re a pretty senior member of the body, you wouldn’t have been getting the gavel this time around.

REP. BILL THOMAS: No, I would not have. And I think that’s the point that needs to be made. Although we may be described as new leaders; for example, I served in the House with Majority Leader Trent Lott. I served in the House with the Minority Leader Tom Daschle. The Vice President-elect was a classmate of mine, and ironically, the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, where they don’t do the turnover quite like we do, I shared a seat on the House Agriculture Committee. So the question was whether or not it was almost permanent or whether there was a reasonable opportunity for people to lead. I was obviously very pleased and humbled at the challenge my colleagues have provided to me. But if you’ll examine those people who are the new chairmen, they are veterans of the legislative process. It’s just that it’s true, when seniority was king, they would not have had a chance. But frankly we lost an awful lot of talented people when that was the only criteria for determining the chair.

RAY SUAREZ: How did you get the job? You had to, in effect, run for it?

REP. BILL THOMAS: Yes, obviously, because I was not the senior person. It was not the natural follow-on. But we haven’t done that from the time that we were in the majority. What we’ve tried to do is take a look at where we need to get the job done, and that although it’s tough, it’s a competition. It’s not unlike running for office and getting elected.

RAY SUAREZ: So what did you do? Do you circulate a resume? Did you make a speech to your colleagues?

REP. BILL THOMAS: Actually, the job is one that you can’t really run for. You present yourself; what you’ve done in the past is in essence your campaign position. The best predictor of future behavior is to a very great extent often times what you’ve done in the past. So if you’ve been there for more than 20 years, people kind of know what you can do and how you can do it.

RAY SUAREZ: This was the result, this changeover that we saw last night, was the result of reforms brought in by the 104th Congress of which you were, of course, a member, and these committee chairmen also supported these changes. But did anybody really know six years ago, it is a fairly abstract thing that six years from now, we’ve got this big change coming, we’ll think about it then. Did it hit home November or December of last year?

REP. BILL THOMAS: No. Some of us talked about it from the very beginning and understood that when we came into power initially, that there was no one in the House of Representatives who had been a chairman, in fact never had belonged to a majority before. So the first time was the easy one. The hard part was the second time, when these people who now had the power, had been waiting for years, sometimes decades, now had to in fact agree that they were relinquishing the power and that we would renew ourselves. I happen to think it is the sign of a very healthy party that has the confidence and courage to renew itself periodically. I also happen to think there is a good chance of better legislation because of it.

RAY SUAREZ: This didn’t happen entirely without grumbling. Henry Hyde asked if perhaps the deadline might be eased a little bit in his case, at judiciary, Marge Roukema and campaign finance reform advocates said that this was really a measure of how much money you had raised for the party, not necessarily the work that had you done as a member of the House. Maybe you can answer some of those critiques.

REP. BILL THOMAS: Well, I think in the introduction that you provided for me — thank you very much, it was very gracious — there is ample evidence that what you have to do is be well rounded. In the old days, all had you to be was warm and vertical. Sometimes those were questionable, but you had to be the most senior. That’s not the best way to do it either. If you’re active in your legislative program in helping to ensure a majority, that’s not the most perfect system either, but it’s just as good and perhaps even better. Our job right now is to produce a work product. Ray, the system is always accommodation and compromise. Whether that accommodation or compromise is inside your own party when you have a large majority to deliver product and move it or has to be between parties when you have a narrow majority. I think one of the things that you’ll notice in terms of the selection of the chairman in the House this time is that there are a number of people who, I believe, have exhibited in the past the ability to put packages or products together so that we can pass legislation that the American people need and want.

For example, Billy Tauzin in the Commerce Committee; what you might say about him is he is a skilled and seasoned legislator. He knows how to put a package together. I like to think that I’ve exhibited that ability in the past, in taking difficult areas like, for example, Medicare reform, and putting together a package that got bipartisan votes and passed the House of Representatives. The ultimate test of legislators is whether or not they legislate. Now, the ultimate test of whether the government works or not is whether that legislation gets signed into law. The really exciting part of all of this is that for the first time in our lifetime, the Republicans, who are now, by the way, in the fourth Congress of being in the majority, have a chance to work with an administration of their own party. Yes, all of the numbers are narrow. If we’re good enough legislators, if our product is good enough, we’ll make good law. And the opportunity to do that is a very exciting one.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, as Ways and Means Chairman, you certainly have a lot of on your plate: Social Security, Medicare, taxation, big, big items.

REP. BILL THOMAS: Don’t leave out trade. We have not been active in this area, and we need to be. That’s also part of the agenda.

RAY SUAREZ: You’ve talked about President-elect Bush about the possibility of tax cuts. What was the nature of your conversation?

REP. BILL THOMAS: I’ve been talking with that team for sometime. I just have to say that they have been the most open, cooperative and communicative group we’ve ever worked with. The tax question obviously is a difficult one. He proposed a position, as did Vice President Gore as a candidate. Given the results of the election, no one is going to get everything they want. Our goal is to sit down and put a package together that has a chance of becoming law.

I talked today, for example, with Charlie Rangel, the ranking member on the Ways and Means Committee. We talked about that, how do we begin the process of accommodation and compromise. I’m not going to get out in front of the administration but the administration fully understands with all the seasoned hands they have on board, that they can’t get too far out in front of the Congress. This is going to be a cooperative effort, and we’re all going to have to work together. The more we talk to each other, the better the chance of getting it right.

RAY SUAREZ: There is no shortage of input. I’m sure people are very frank about telling you what they think. President-elect Bush has made clear his decision to stick with the size and the timetable of his original plan. There are members of the House who are saying no way we can do one this big, no way we can do one this fast. What is your first assignment as the new administration comes in?

REP. BILL THOMAS: Well, first of all, take a look at the economy, take a look at the priorities and see how you can sequence some of these very difficult things; for example, Social Security needs reforming, Medicare needs reforming. It seems to me that given the timeline that we are dealing with, the ability to modify Medicare and put prescription drugs in the modified Medicare has a slightly higher calling if you’re trying to move legislation than fundamentally reforming Social Security. There is an educational process that needs to take place as well. But I might differ with you a little bit in terms of describing the President’s position that he said, I’m sticking to the number and I’m sticking to the timetable.

I think what I have been hearing and I will tell you what the discussion is, is that even though you might have a particular number that you’re looking at, the sequencing, the timing, where and how it happens, can have significantly different impacts on the economy. And that’s what we’re beginning to talk about. No one is going to advocate a position without looking at what is going on right now in the economy and with what had been a very handsome longtime economic buildup. Nobody is going to push through a program that doesn’t take into consideration its impact now, nine months, and five years from now. So that’s going to be part of the discussion. You review it. Do we still want to do this? Yes or no. How would it be modified to assist now in this new economic climate versus where it was even just nine months or a year ago when many of these ideas were first formulated.

RAY SUAREZ: Chairman Bill Thomas, thanks for joining us.

REP. BILL THOMAS: Thank you.