The little, gray-haired woman listened, most impatiently, to the little, gray-haired man in the cavernous Senate hearing room yesterday.
"No one pays my rent," he said, "and Uncle Sam and other taxpayers shouldn't pay yours. A dozen women glared.
The woman - who has lived in Bangladesh and Pakistan and is the wife of an American construction worker - shook her head and then in a ladylike voice said, "In Bangladesh the company provided our home. It was a pile of - I know you can't quote this - s - - -. That man has a totally closed mind. He will never understand. He's just on an ego trip."
And "he" wasnt even the senator. Howard Shuman, administrative assistant to Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire, did verbal battle for more than an hour with 13 construction workers' wives from all over the world.
It was one of those common Washington confrontations, where special-interest groups fight daily for their threatened Way of Life, while the Shumans of the Hill live out the glak catcher's destiny as they listen, ponder and counter.
The woman has flown to Washington to complain to Congress, the White House and the Treasury Department that they are being gouged by a new tax law that will drastically hike the U.S. income tax of Americans working abroad.
Proxmire, well-known chronicle of government waste, had especially Shuman. "I don't wear a mink coat, irked the woman when he protested Treasury Department efforts to soften the new law, arguing that department officials were listening to the "moans of the mink-swathed Americans abroad."
Frances Hemenway - who in January fired off a letter to Proxmire from her sand-and-cockroach-infested world of Lagos, Nigeria, listened angrily to but I've learned to sweat gracefully - shopping in un-air-conditioned stores or sitting in my own living room," she wrote Proxmire.
With only a few hours of electricity, a generator is needed to keep food from spoiling. All washed clothes must be ironed to keep files from hatching in the clothes, then crawling under the wearer's skin. Sweeping the sand deposited from dust storms is an daily chore. The half-day school - with no music, physical education, sports or extracurricular activities - is $4,000 a year. A medium head of cauliflower costs $5 and a 2 1/2-pound chicken $6, even though such products are grown and processed there. When Hemenway wanted to move out of the dilapidated company-owned home into a better neighborhood, the cheapest rent was $3,500 a month.
"You can imagine how incensed I was at Proxmire's notion that we all wear mink coats and jet off to the gaming tables at Monte Carlo," said Hemenway as she stalked the halls of Congress.
Hemenway and the other women - living in Egypt, Nigeria, Chile, Indonesia, Guatemala, Philippines, Brazil, Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia - are part of an intense lobbying campaign on behalf of 150,000 angry American taxpayers and the companies which employ them overseas.
"This is a very narrow, selfish, interest group lobbying of the most intense kind," said Shuman, before he faced the women. "You can't tell me these companies - who can afford to fly them in here - are hurting."
Still, in face of these pleas to reinstate overseas tax breaks, Congress has delayed the effective date of the 1976 tax reforms. Bills are pending to restore some of the tax breaks.
The 1976 reform pared down the amount of income Americans working abroad could exclude from taxable income and taxed their income in a higher bracket. Company allowances (for housing, education, home leave, storage and moving costs and transportation) would also have to be lined as taxable income. Overseas workers gripe that this was "phantom" income and that living costs in some hardship countries were so high they would spend most of their actual earned income to pay for their "grossed-up" income tax.
Proxmire had a life-is-unfair answer to all this. "The old tax law costs almost one-half billion dollars in revenues a year and only some 150,000 overseas American taxpayers benefit from this flagrant tax loophole. Why should Americans living in Oskosh or Oregon or New York have to pick up that tab?" As for hardship stories, Proxmire says these are the "worst case" exaggerations of the few. The companies, not the government, should pick up the freight - paying enough to make such posts worthwhile, he said.
"For example, should the government pick up the tab for Jimmy Carter and his assistants, who moved from $30,000 houses in Atlanta to $120,000 homes in Washington suburbs? Should they get an extra housing allowance?" asked Shuman.
The women shouted Shuman down. That theoretical case was not-analogous they said. This provision didn't just effect their taxes - but the whole balance of international trade. Americans would have to quit overseas jobs and American companies would have to pull out of countries because they could not compete with companies from foreign countries, they said.
"I am as red-white-and-blue as anyone, but I have seen us priced right out of the foreign market. The foreign countries moving in to run everything will not allow my husband to purchase U.S. equipment," said Virginia Vopff, now living in Pakistan.
"You talk about that half billion in tax revenues. Well, you're not going to get it from me or any of us because we won't stay there. Americans are pulling out," said Patricia Dodge, who has lived in Egypt. Another from Iran said, "My husband's on a billion-dollar project in the Middle East - that means a lot to the American economy right there."
The women repeatedly told Shuman that chief competitors such as Germany, Italy and Japan do not tax their overseas workers at all.
Shuman's answer: "Two wrongs don't make a right."
More groans and glares.
"It's unfair that this cost of living, given to you to spend in the economy of another country, is added to your salary and you have to pay taxes on it," said Dorothy Fagge, who had been flown in from Brazil by her husband's company, C.E. Lummus.
The Fagge's rent is $75 a month for a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Salvador that comes with "absolutely nothing - no lights, no light switches, no kitchen cupboards or medicine cabinets. You put it in yourself, and when you move, you take it with you." When the lease is renewed, it will go up to $1,000. Her husband, an electrical superintendent, gets $24,000 salary plus $1,250 cost of living. The company pays the rent, but that and other taxable income will make it hard for them to break even, Fagge says.
One construction lobby has come up with a hypothetical case of a worker making $22,500 a year. Taxable allowances for housing, schooling etc., push him up to a total $76,000 income. Less deductions, he would end up paying $25,101 - almost $3,000 more than he makes.
"The State Department ought to be negotiating these artificial 'blackmail' rents, but to legislate for 150,000 taxpayers on the basis of these 'worst cases' is farfetched," said Shuman.
Some allowances should be made for "truly" hardship cases, Shuman conceded, but pressed his point that the majority of Americans live in plush posts and that an across-the-board tax break should not apply for those living in the luxury of Paris or London or the Riviera - as well as the work camps of Saudi Arabia. For the first time in the discussion, the women seemed somewhat mollified.
The construction lobby is fighting the hardest because their workers are mostly in underdeveloped hardship countries - not the plush posts of Geneva or Paris or the Riviera. They are angered that overseas government personnel are taxed under a separate code - and, unlike the privately employed, can deduct cost-of-living expenses paid by the government.
Shuman said if he were they he would not work in a hardship post unless handsomely compensated by the company.
"We do not live overseas because we want to, but we are often unemployed here," said Hemenway.
Vicki Whinnery, living in Saudi Arabia, said, "For a mediocre apartment with a good-will furniture, we pay $1,000 a month. There is no telephone and women can't drive in Saudi Arabia, much less work."
"A gallon of ice cream costs $15 in Riyadh. It's 103 degrees in the summer and air conditioning never works. Natives do not pay the prices we do. They see us coming in the stores and suddenly a 15-cent cucumber is 50 cents." her husband makes $20,000 a year and the company pays the rent "but it will take all our savings to pay the income tax. It's not what Proxmire thinks - that it's a ball. We have double locks to keep out thieves, goats and sand. We are not jetting off to anywhere."
When it was all over Shuman said, "I think the women realize they are not going to get the old provision back - which outrageously universalizes the loopholes for everyone living abroad." When he emphasized that the Treasury Department should devise an answer tailored to hardship cases, some of them even smiled.
"Why," said Shuman, with some exaggeration, common to the Hill, "we ended up loving each other."