The man in the rear of the Falls Church auditorium looked to be in his 50s and said he was a federal employee five years from retirement. He wanted to know what Rep. Joseph L.Fisher planned to do about the news, reported in the morning's paper, that were said to be "confused, angry and Fisher planned to do about the news, reported in that morning's paper, that said: "Social Security for U.S. Workers Backed."
Fisher had come to the Oct. 4 town meeting prepared to discuss a range of questions, but there was only one topic on the minds of the 100 people who filled the colonial-style Council chamber that night: How to stop Congress from forcing the 2.4 million federal workers to exchange their lucrative retirement system for the lesser benefits of the financially wobbly Social Security system.
By the time the meeting ended, it was clear that action was needed, especially by Fisher. His 10th Congressional District of Virginia probably has more federal employees than any in the nation. Forty per cent of the families in his district encompassing Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties include at least one U.S. jobholder.
What occurred in the next three weeks was described by one of Fisher's aides as "our greatest success" in the three years the Arlington economist has been in Congress. Fisher, typically low-key, called it "a nice little case study of an effort to overthrow a hefty vote on committee."
However you describe it, on Oct. 26, by a vote of 386 to 38, the House approved an amendment offered by Democrat Fisher that removed government employees from inclusion in a sweeping revision of the Social Security law, at least for the next few years.
Fisher began his campaign within the Ways and Means Committee, on which he serves, by attempting to get all 37 members to reverse the recommendation of its Social Security subcommittee, of which he is not a member, that would have brought federal workers under the system in 1980.
Although it was far from a one-man effort, "the responsibility rested largely with us," explained John G. Milliken, Fisher's executive assistant, "because we had the most at stake." Because everyone knew Fisher has so many federal employees in his district, his ideas "didn't have too much credibility," Milliken added.
While Fisher, a 63-year-old second term representative, led the fight to exempt government workers from this year's bill, as an economist he believes that, given the proper time to study and explain the proposal, the idea should be implemented.
Under the Civil Service retirement plan, federal employees contribute 7 per cent of their pay, compared to a present 5.85 per cent under Social Security, but they also get much bigger benefits. For example, a $15,000-a-year Federal worker can retire after 30 years at $703 a month while the same worker under Social Security would get a maximum of $460 plus allowances for dependents.
Fisher got Rep. Joe D. Waggonner Jr. (D-La.) to offer a two-step plan that would strike universal coverage but order a study of how it could be implemented at a later date.
Normally, Democrat Fisher's opponents on the committee would be the 12 Republicans, but universal Social Security coverage had been advanced by the GOP as an alternative to President Carter's proposed revisions of the Social Security System.
So the Waggonner amendment was defeated - by the Democratic majority.
Fisher had a back-up plan, however, to delay implementation of universal coverage until 1984, permitting time for a detailed study of how the federal retirement system could be "meshed" with Social Security, much as many private plans supplement the monthly Social Security retirment checks. The committee cut the starting date back to 1982 and passed Fisher's plan.
It was a small victory, however, for federal employees, many of whom were said to be "confused, angry and hysterical" about accounts of the progress of the proposal. They kept three people in Fisher's office busy answering the phones.
So Fisher geared up for a floor fight on an amendment that would remove government employees from this year's bill, provide additional tax revenues to cover the loss of money for the system from their continued exclusion, and authorize a plan to eventually bring them into the system.
Fisher galvanized support for his amendment from among often opposing groups.
The so-called universal provision would affect 6 million to 7 million workers, only 2.5 million of whom are on the federal payroll.
Although 70 per cent of all local government employees already are covered by Social Security there are thousands of teachers, firefighters, policemen, sanitation workers and local government employees in hundreds of cities across the nation who would have to give up their local retirement plans and join Social Security, as would all state workers in Ohio and Colorado.
Employer groups, frightened that Social Security taxes would be higher than what they were now paying, joined angry union leaders, who feared a loss of benefits for their members.
Fisher, joined by Reps. Gladys Noon Spellman (D-Md.), Herbert E. Harris (D-Va.), Newton Steers (R-Md.) and others, mounted a coalition that included police officers and police chiefs, teachers, principals and school boards, city, county and state workers, plus mayors, executives and governors, and of course, federal employees and their unions.
The word went out that Joe Fisher would offer an amendment to save them, and soon the offices of hundreds of members of Congress were being deluged with letters, ("every postal clerk and letter carrier in our district must have written us," said one harried aide), telegram and phone calls urging support for "the Fisher amendment."
Bewildered congressman called Fisher's office, asking: "What is this amendment."
Rep. Ronald M. Mottl (D-Ohio) got 4,000 letters, "more than on any issue" since he was elected from his suburban Cleveland district three years ago.
"Public employees are quick to get active," said administrative assistant Robert C. Kitchel. "We were inundated" with calls for support of the Fisher amendment, both from employes and their bosses, who feared joining Social Security would "play hell with local budgets," Kitchel said.
The Ways and Means Committee office also was being swamped with mail, nearly all of it opposing the bill, or at least, urging support of Fisher's amendment.
Meanwhile, Fisher had picked up important support from the House leadership. Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill offered the use of his office for a meeting of 20 to 30 members who set up a task force to work on their colleagues.
During the meeting in O'Neill's office, which also was attended by William Cable from the White House and Richard Warden from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, "the administration position crystallized behind the Fisher amendment," Milliken said.
Fisher also met downtown in the headquarters of the AFL-CIO, where union lobbyists went over a list of House members and then fanned out to their congressional offices to urge support of the amendment.
Joy Silver, Fishers legislative assistant, was working out details of the study that would be mandated by the amendment and determing how much extra in Social Security taxes would be added for most Americans by elimination of the government workers from the system.
Meanwhile, the House Post Office and Civil Service Commission threatened a jurisdictional dispute when it unanimously voted to offer an amendment stripping federal workers out of the bill.
Fisher had Speaker O'Neill in his camp by then, and with O'Neill's blessing and the support of Ways and Means Chairman Al Ullman (D-Ore.), Robert N.C. Nix (D-Pa.), the Post Office Committee chairman, agreed that he would introduce his amendment but that Fisher would be permitted to substitute his motion, assuring that the first vote would come on Fisher's proposal.
Amendment supporters feared some support might erode when congressmen went home over the four-day Veterans Day weekend Oct. 21-24, but instead some returned reinforced, in one instance, after a visit from his governor.
The night before the vote, there was a final strategy meeting in Fisher's office, where it was determined that the previously undecided members from New York City had come out for the amendment and that the necessary 218 votes were assured.
On Oct. 26, with a plan that followed the script to the letter, the House, after an hour's debate, voted in favor of the Fisher amendment, with the opposition largely coming from Democrats on Fisher's Ways and Means Committee.
In the members' dining room that night, a waitress - like all Hill workers a federal employee - said she had a list of the 38 members who voted against the amendment, and promised "no good tables" for them.
When Milliken arrived at his Arlington apartment that night, flushed with the success of his boss' biggest victory, he found a note under the door from a neighbor, a federal worker near the retirement age, that said: "We all thank you so much for your work. David Schumacher broke in with the good news at 6:57."