When the names of Kent R. Hance and Phil Gramm appeared on the tax and budget legislation of Reaganomics, the two Democratic congressmen from Texas were called treacherous apostates by many of their colleagues.
Hance seemed sickened by it: "It was the most unpleasant period of my life." Gramm, in contrast, relished the role: "Was it hard for me? Bull----. It was the easiest thing I've ever done."
Hance has been redeemed. Gramm will soon be punished.
Their fates tell much about the current condition of the political creatures known as "Boll Weevils," the conservative, southern, House Democrats who more often than not vote with the Republicans.
On one level, the Boll Weevils, who spent 1981 and much of this year defecting from their party on key votes, emerged from the recent elections with a stronger mandate than any other faction in Congress. All of the 39 members of the Conservative Democratic Forum, the official Weevil organization, who sought reelection this year won. There were a few close races in North Carolina, but their overall victory margin was more than 80 percent.
Yet they return to Washington facing a paradox. While they won their own battles, the nature of the war in the House has changed. President Reagan's standing in Congress has diminished, and so has the Weevils' bargaining position.
The infusion of 26 more Democrats into the next Congress in January has shifted the balance of power in the direction of the House leadership, which either ignored or scorned the Weevils when they were working openly with the Republicans. Now, as the old song goes, the Boll Weevils are "lookin' for a home."
They are not unanimous on where that home should be, but many of them indicated in interviews last week that they are less inclined than a year ago to side with Reagan against their party and especially less inclined to vote with the president on defense.
At the very least, as Hance and Gramm indicate, they are now split. Hance is in the vanguard of those seeking reconciliation, while Gramm will have very little, if anything, to do with it.
In the year since he cosponsored Reagan's 1981 tax cut measure, Hance, an easygoing lawyer from Lubbock, has worked diligently to repair his relationship with the leaders. "I think I'm doing fine now," he said in a recent interview.
"I voted to override the president's veto of the supplemental appropriations bill this year . I voted for fair housing. I supported the leadership on the major procedural votes. I went to Mississippi to campaign for the black candidate down there. I got out and went to a lot of different cities. I probably raised more money for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee than anyone except maybe[ committee chairman] Tony Coelho," he said.
As a result, Hance's position on the Ways and Means Committee will not be challenged when the Democratic Caucus meets to organize before the next session. "I got near the fire," he said. "But . . . I didn't stick my hand in it."
If the fire is the wrath of the party leadership, Gramm stuck both hands in. He spent many long nights in the last session helping to refine Republican legislation in the offices of Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (Ill.) and Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.).
During the elections, Gramm ignored a leadership request that he give the national party some of the substantial sums of money he raised from conservative business, oil and gas interests in Texas. Some of his Texas colleagues complain that he went into their districts this fall without acknowledging them.
The word on Capitol Hill these days is that Gramm will be removed from the House Budget Committee and perhaps from the Energy and Commerce Committee as punishment. Even many of his Boll Weevil comrades, while saying they will lobby to keep him on the committees, feel Gramm may have gone too far.
"The leadership has some grievance in his case," said Weevil Buddy Roemer (La.), who considers himself one of Gramm's strongest supporters. "I don't want to paint them as being needlessly vindictive. Phil made no bones about what he was doing in the last session -- he worked with the other side. That's a threat to the leadership. He was carrying a message for a lot of us, and they're going to kill the messenger."
"There is a fine line, and Phil may have crossed it," Weevil Dave McCurdy (Okla.) said. "His zeal was perhaps too much. The Democrats should not be an extension of the Republican Party."
Gramm, an articulate, tough-talking former economics professor at Texas A&M, said he has no intention of trying to get back in the good graces of the leadership.
"The question was would I go along to get along, in the old House Speaker Sam Rayburn sense, or was I going to represent my district? The choice wasn't hard for me. A lot of people have been cussin' me and threatenin' me. But there's a big difference between cussin' me and taking me off my committee. I think there is a reasonable chance the leadership will try to make an example of one person to intimidate the others and bring them back in line," he said.
"The leadership has the votes to do it if they want to. I'm not going to make it easy for them . . . They'll in effect be saying to conservative Democrats from the South and Southwest: 'You can come up here and sit back in redneck row, keep your mouths shut and cast protest votes after the issue has been decided. But you can't try to win. You can't make a contest out of it.'
"If they take me off Budget, I would obviously take a long, hard look at all my options. I intend to go back to the district and ask them what we ought to do. One option is to change parties Gramm recently hired a Republican pollster to find out how that would play in his district . Another is to serve out this term and then go back to A&M. A third is to suffer in silence, but I've not shown much of an aptitude for that in the past.
" . . . I pity the poor bastards in the Post Office and the District of Columbia if they move me to those committees which are considered to have the least prestige of the standing committees in the House . They've never had anyone go in there and kick ass and take names like I would."
Within Weevil ranks, Hance and Gramm are viewed as evidence that the Conservative Democratic Forum embraces as many disparate views and approaches as the Democratic Party as a whole.
"A lot of people think we march in lock step with one another and with the president," forum coordinator Charles W. Stenholm (Tex.) said. "That's not true. We split about even on most of the key votes, with different members going different ways on all of them."
Stenholm and a dozen other Weevils interviewed last week said they would like to work with the Democratic leadership as much as their ideological differences will allow.
"This year you will find the Boll Weevils going to the Democratic leadership, rather than the Republicans, for give-and-take," said Hance, whose "give" with the Republicans was sponsorship of their tax bill and whose "take" was provisions beneficial to independent oil and gas producers who dominate his district.
"There might be some deals that can be worked out. They need jobs programs, and we need farm programs. If Tip [Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr.] works that right, it could be to everyone's benefit," he said.
"In politics there is always another day, and that day is now," Weevil Bill Nelson (Fla.) said. "What happened in 1981 and 1982 has to be considered in the context of those years. So much of what was happening then was 'give the president a chance.' He's had two years now, and the issues are just not going to play like they did then."
The Weevils' rapprochement with the Democratic leadership began even before the Nov. 2 midterm election results made it more of a political necessity. In early October, O'Neill met in the Capitol with 15 forum members. "The speaker talked quite candidly about working together," Roemer said. He also asked each of the Weevils to donate $3,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Some Weevils were repulsed. "It was a shakedown, pure and simple," one said. "You give us your money, and I'll give you good grace." But most went along. Hance outdid everyone, supplying the committee with an estimated $150,000 and holding a fund-raiser for a member of the leadership, House Budget Committee Chairman James R. Jones (Okla.).
Weevil G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery (Miss.), whose chairmanship of the Veterans' Affairs Committee seemed vulnerable to a liberal challenge, also raised a substantial amount of money for the DCCC and campaigned in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina for Democratic congressional candidates of various political philosophies.
Montgomery, whose office in the Longworth House Office Building served as what he called "the war room" for Weevil strategy sessions over the last two years, said he has received indications that the leadership will not try to dump him as committee chairman.
"I feel that the Democratic leadership will support or not work against my being elected," he said last week. "I think they will vote for me."
Since the Weevils emerged as a political faction after World War II, one of the primary issues on which they have formed coalitions with Republicans has been defense spending. But Montgomery and many of his hawkish Democratic colleagues from the South now say they will not give the Pentagon all of the money Reagan is seeking for it.
"I think we're going to have to cut back on defense spending," said Montgomery, whose office walls display perhaps more military memorabilia per square foot than any on Capitol Hill. "We're not gonna give the president the big increase he wants."
"One of the surprising things I heard from my constituents during the election was that we're spending too much on defense," said Weevil Thomas J. Huckaby (La.). "If I'm hearing that, here in northern Louisiana . . . then it has to be much greater nationwide." Huckaby said he would support measures to reduce U.S. funding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and toughen military retirement requirements.
"There are a lot of misconceptions about Boll Weevils," said Roemer, a Harvard graduate whose real name, which he rarely admits in Shreveport, is Charles Elson Roemer III.
"One of them is that we all say, 'Give the generals a blank check.' I don't support the funding for the MX missile, for instance. I voted against it last time, and will again. I think a majority of us would accept and applaud selective cuts," he said.
"I'm a hawk, but we can't give a blank check to the Pentagon," Hance said. "Throwing money at it didn't solve our social problems, and it's not going to solve our military problems either.
"I'm not sure about the MX. You know they tried to put it in my district once, but they wanted it in the wrong place. They wanted to put it up north with the farmers, instead of in the south with the ranchers. The boys from the South actually wanted it. They came up to Washington once and asked some guy from the Pentagon whether they could have it.
"So the guy turned to me and asked, 'What did they say?'
"I said, 'You heard 'em. If y'all just get one ready, they'll just pack it up, put it in the back of their pickup trucks and drive the damn thing home with 'em.' "