Rebel in the Ranks
By Massimo Calabresi and Perry Bacon Jr.
Bill Thomas, 63, has unhorsed more than a few people in his 27 years in Congress.
In 1995, Florida Democrat Sam Gibbons, a normally affable septuagenarian, got so angry at Thomas after a contentious Medicare debate that he lunged for the younger man in a Capitol Hill hallway. A year and a half ago, Thomas outraged a group of House Democrats when he tried to get the police to evict them after they walked out of a hearing and occupied an adjacent room.
And then there was the irate Capitol Hill staff member who beat up on Thomas' Mercedes SL 500, with Thomas inside, in the Capitol garage last April.
The powerful Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee added a name to the list of the aggrieved last week: President George W. Bush.
Speaking two days before Bush's Inauguration, Thomas dismissed the central part of Bush's proposal for reforming Social Security, saying personal-investment accounts "don't really solve the problem."
He then tossed a few political bombs, musing that Congress might link retirement benefits to gender because women live longer than men, or might let blue-collar workers retire earlier because "there are certain occupations in which you're pretty used up by 65." He rounded out his comments by declaring that the politics of the House and Senate would soon render the President's plan a "dead horse" even before Bush announces its details.
Unfortunately for the White House, Thomas is not just another colorful character on the Hill; he is the most important player on Social Security in the House.
As Ways and Means chairman, the portly, professorial Thomas has a huge say in how the government gets the billions it needs for its programs. For the White House, having Thomas at odds with the President means not just gaining an opponent but also losing a vital ally, one who in the first Bush term earned the moniker "the Mailman" for helping deliver three tax cuts and the Medicare prescription-drug benefit.
What should concern the White House most is that Thomas said out loud what many other Republicans have been whispering: that with midterm elections in two years, they are wary of tampering with a program as popular as Social Security and, if they have to, would prefer to consider alternative ideas.
Thomas, who thinks Social Security may need to be funded with revenues other than payroll contributions, hinted that to ensure the program's solvency, Bush should consider raising taxes -- an option the President rejects. Chiming in, Representative Jim McCrery of Louisiana, head of the Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security, suggested raising the ceiling on payroll taxes, which are currently levied only on the first $90,000 a person earns. The White House opposes that too.
But when Thomas and his allies want something, they usually get it. In 2003, for example, as Republicans worked to add a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare, Thomas insisted on -- and got -- provisions allowing private insurers to compete with Medicare.
White House officials say they are confident he won't torpedo Bush's Social Security plan.
"The President has a longer fuse than most when it comes to him because, at the end of the day, he has produced a lot of results," says a senior White House aide.
But Administration officials realize they will have to address Thomas' concerns, especially the reliance on payroll taxes to fund Social Security.
Thomas is cranky with both those below and above him, famously storming out of a meeting on Medicare when his House leadership bosses took control of negotiations. He's erratic too: he has occasionally broken down in tears, as he did when apologizing for the Capitol police incident, lamenting that his mother would have told him, "When they were passing out moderation, you were hiding behind the door."
The son of a plumber, Thomas grew up in Orange County, California. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science from San Francisco State University and then taught the subject at a Bakersfield, California, community college.
In 1978 he won a congressional seat from Bakersfield, California, and, on arriving in Washington, roomed with another college professor who had decided to enter politics, Newt Gingrich. Like Gingrich, he ached to be a House leader.
After Republicans gained control of the House in 1994, Thomas took over the obscure House Administration Committee. In 2000 he ran a fierce campaign to leapfrog over a more senior Republican to take over Ways and Means.
Thomas quickly established a reputation for intelligence -- impressing and confounding colleagues with long-winded explanations of everything from car engines to Medicare reform -- and for independence. That quality has now made him Bush's biggest new problem.
With reporting by Matthew Cooper, John F. Dickerson and Karen Tumulty in Washington