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Archer's Last Stand: A Social Security Crusade

Rep. Bill Archer
Rep. Bill Archer (R-Tex.). (Ray Lustig The Post)

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  • Congressional Profile: Rep. Bill Archer (R-Tex.)

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  • By Eric Pianin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, July 3, 1999; Page A3

    With his lip trembling and fighting back tears, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) recently made an extraordinary plea to his committee colleagues. Time was running out on his chairmanship--and on his political career--and he needed their help, he said, in attaining his crowning achievement: long-term reform of Social Security.

    "I think each one of us owes a responsibility to every generation in this country and to generations to come," Archer said. "I know we'll shoulder our responsibilities."

    Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat and Archer's longtime nemesis, said he was prepared to rip into Archer and his plan to privatize part of Social Security. "But I was so moved by his remarks that it was actually disarming," Rangel said.

    For a politician well known for his courtly, tightly wound style, Archer's emotional display underscored how passionately he has taken to the cause of Social Security reform. While many have written off any hope of progress this year, Archer has waged a lonely but spirited campaign to put Social Security on firm fiscal ground, even while allowing Americans for the first time to invest a portion of their retirement nest egg in the stock market.

    Time is running out for the 28-year House veteran. While other House chairmen are trying to find ways around GOP term limits that will force many of them to relinquish power next year, Archer has announced he will retire at the end of this Congress. With that date fast approaching, Archer is frantically trying to break down resistance to a Social Security deal, reaching out to President Clinton and congressional Democrats while pushing skeptical leaders of his own party to keep an open mind.

    In the wake of the new administration forecasts of huge budget surpluses--money enough, in theory, to fix Social Security and Medicare and cut taxes--Archer's crusade now seems more plausible. And as White House and congressional leaders begin to ponder the broad contours of a possible budget, tax and entitlement deal this fall, Archer is positioned to serve as an important broker, since his powerful committee has jurisdiction over many of the issues at stake.

    "Hopefully it's a time when the stars are coming together, because I believe President Clinton wants very much to be able to solve this problem in this Congress," Archer said during a recent interview. "Now will we find the answers this year? I don't know. But I think we've got an excellent starting point--one that hasn't been present for a long, long time."

    Archer has often operated in the shadows of larger-than-life figures--from powerful Ways and Means Committee chairmen such as Democrats Wilbur Mills and Dan Rostenkowski to former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich, who kept a tight rein on Archer's committee in drafting key elements of the "Contract With America."

    Indeed, the role of political broker is not one with which Archer, 71, seems altogether comfortable. A wealthy former businessman and state legislator from one of Houston's toniest neighborhoods, Archer is neither a backslapper nor a political powerhouse, able to impose his will by force of personality. Rather, he has been an unfailingly polite but persistent conservative ideologue--a champion of free-market economies, cultural conservatism and the abolition of the federal tax code.

    But given the treacherous politics of Social Security, Archer has had to adopt a more pragmatic posture, mending fences with the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) and key Democrats with whom he often feuded over Medicare, Medicaid, welfare reform and tax policy. He conferred with Clinton at length during a White House conference on Social Security last December and then again during a private meeting at the White House in May, trying to find common ground on an issue that Democrats have wielded as a political ax against Republicans for years.

    Diverging from a competing Clinton administration plan that features individual accounts outside the Social Security system, Archer has proposed allowing Americans to invest 2 percent of their annual income in selected private investment funds--marking a fundamental break with the traditional Depression-era program. But in a sign of his interest in finding common ground, his plan would pay for those investments out of future budget surpluses, rather than by dipping into Social Security payroll taxes--as many conservatives would prefer.

    Archer said his plan is not written in stone and that he and Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.) offered it primarily to trigger discussion between the two parties. He has repeatedly prodded Clinton and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to assume a more active role and persuaded Hastert to address a recent closed-door session of Ways and Means Republicans and Democrats on the importance of finding a compromise.

    But considerable roadblocks remain. Democratic leaders have repeatedly warned the White House that the president would face a revolt if he attempted to cut a private deal with Archer and the Republicans on Social Security.

    "We're not going to accept any privatization of the program," a senior House Democrat said recently. "That's just not going to happen."

    Critics on the right are equally severe with Archer's plan. "His proposal is empty, and it's not much more than the president's proposal," said William Niskanen of the libertarian Cato Institute. "My problem is Archer is so committed to having a bill with his name on it that he's willing to make almost any kind of deal with Clinton on the content of the package."

    Archer acknowledges that even with the new surplus projections, the prospects for achieving a major change in Social Security this year remain remote. "If we have not come to a conclusion on agreement before the August recess, I think it would be awfully, awfully difficult to reach a resolution," he said.

    White House aides portray Archer as well-meaning and a potential ally, but believe he was unrealistic in initially believing he and Clinton could work out a compromise that would gain widespread acceptance on Capitol Hill. "He was a little too fixated on the possibility that he and the president could do it," said a White House aide. "The president at their last meeting gently told him there's got to be a real group of people who want to do it. He has to reach out more."

    One sign of that outreach is Archer's efforts to court Rangel, the ranking Democrat on Ways and Means, after years of testy relations. It was Rangel, a senior black lawmaker, who accused Archer of racism in 1995. That was shortly after Archer assumed the reins of the committee and, as one of his first acts, knocked out a Federal Communications Commission tax incentive for broadcasters who sold their operations to minorities.

    During the welfare reform debate, Rangel compared Archer and the Republicans to Hitler for gutting traditional welfare laws and putting poor children and the elderly at risk.

    A furious Archer refused to talk to Rangel and excluded him from any private discussions about committee business. "A lot of rhetoric was spoken in those days that no human being is going to enjoy hearing," Archer recalled. "I am not a vindictive person. I was not bitter. I was hurt by that. That did not lend itself to a detente."

    But the gruff, gravelly voiced Rangel is central to any discussions of Social Security. A month ago Archer invited the Harlem Democrat to meet with him for their first private talk in the chairman's office in the Longworth House Office Building.

    Rangel is dubious about Archer's proposal and his single-handed effort to pump life into Social Security reform talks. "It should be the leadership from the House and Senate saying, 'Come on, we can and should do it,' " Rangel said. But he also said he was encouraged that Archer has Hastert more involved in the process and arranged the closed-door talks between Republican and Democratic committee members--two steps that Rangel had strongly endorsed.

    "I like him," Rangel said of Archer. "We're so different. But one thing is for sure: He's sincere."

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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