By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 7, 2006
Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), the irascible House Ways and Means Committee chairman who helped shepherd through President Bush's biggest domestic policy initiatives, announced yesterday that he will retire at the end of the year.
House Republican term limits would have forced Thomas, 64, to give up his perch on the powerful committee before the next Congress, a prospect that pushed the 14-term lawmaker toward his decision. His is the highest-profile in a string of retirement announcements that brings the total of seats being vacated to 26, 16 of them by Republicans.
"Ever since I was first elected to Congress in 1978, I set a goal to study the issues and become as effective a legislator as I could be to promote the interests of my constituents, the state of California and our nation," Thomas said from his office in Bakersfield, Calif. "In doing so, I have been extremely grateful to the voters who have returned me to office over the past four decades, and I hope, through legislation, advocacy and constituent service, that I have returned that appreciation."
"Congressman Bill Thomas is a friend and a man of great accomplishment who has been a very effective leader in the House of Representatives," Bush said.
Thomas will leave an impressive record of legislative accomplishment that includes passage of six tax cuts in the past five years, a Medicare prescription drug benefit that was the most significant expansion of the program since its inception, and a slew of hard-fought free trade agreements. Still within reach is a major restructuring of the nation's private pension system.
"Thomas was terrific," said Mark Weinberger, who was assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy during the 2001 tax cut fight. "Not only did he understand the policy of arcane trade, tax and health care issues, but he knew how to legislate. And when you have both of those things, you become a very formidable negotiator."
But Thomas's reputation as a shrewd legislative tactician has a dark side: He has shown himself willing to bully friends and adversaries alike if his arguments do not prove persuasive.
"There's no question the chairman rubs people the wrong way with his brusqueness and his irascible countenance. He doesn't suffer fools well, and that gets him into trouble," said Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), who is widely seen as the front-runner to succeed Thomas if Republicans maintain control of the House. "But if he didn't have something like that, he'd be darned near perfect."
In July 2003, GOP leaders forced him to deliver a tearful apology on the House floor for summoning the Capitol Police to evict committee Democrats from a Ways and Means library. He also apologized to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) after accusing her of taking a stance on medical malpractice legislation because she faced reelection, which she was not.
Democrats may have a hard time forgiving him for the imperial way he ran his committee. Thomas held only a few perfunctory hearings, keeping even Republicans largely in the dark as he drafted legislation, then giving committee members just hours to digest complex, voluminous bills before slamming them through on party-line votes, said Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), the Ways and Means Committee's ranking Democrat.
"I really think the methods he used to accomplish his goals have done severe damage to the legislative process . . . and really damaged relations between the parties," Rangel said.
Thomas is likely to retire without one marquee law that is seen as his masterwork. Bush had hoped last year that Thomas could rescue his foundering Social Security restructuring by folding it into a broader, more popular retirement security initiative. But even Bush aides say Thomas was brought into the process too late to save it.
But in little more than five years as chairman, Thomas left a mark. He leapfrogged over a more senior committee member, former representative Phil Crane (R-Ill.), to become chairman.
That year, Thomas folded provisions to entice more retirement and pension savings into the president's 2001 tax cut. Then, against the wishes of the White House, he broke the 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax reduction into small pieces that passed Congress with unexpected ease.
In 2003, he rejected Bush's complex proposal to end taxation of dividends from fully taxed corporate earnings, replacing it with a simpler 15-percent tax rate on dividends and capital gains.