THIS IS THE SUMMER of Bill Archer’s content. For 26 years, ever since he won the Southwest Houston congressional seat vacated by George Bush, he has waited through decades of Democratic rule for the time when he would be the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and the point man for a Republican assault on Democratic taxing and spending policies. At age 69, his moment has finally arrived. He is the author of the first tax cut since 1981, the first year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The final product may not be all that he wished for: If he had his way, he would eviscerate the personal income tax. But Archer, unlike some of his more militant colleagues, has been around long enough to understand how grudgingly Washington yields its rewards and how much the GOP Congress has accomplished in a system loaded with checks and balances. They have cut capital-gains, estate, and income taxes and balanced the federal budget, all with a Democratic president in the White House.
What makes Bill Archer important, then, is more than his achievements. It is the kind of politician he isand the kind he is not. Philosophically he is totally in step with the insurgent younger Republicans, but personally he is a throwback to the pre-television era, when the House labored in obscurity and how a member conducted himself was as important as how he voted. He is an unrelenting enemy of the economic policies that make big government possible, and his views, once regarded as fringe, now represent the mainstream of the GOP. He came out against the much-ballyhooed reforms of social security in 1983 and income taxes in 1986, both of which were signed by Reagan. He doesn’t worry much about those who Democrats call “people in need”: He has opposed increases in benefits for social security and unemployment, which otherwise have enjoyed broad bipartisan support for most of his tenure in Washington. At the same time, he has been an unapologetic advocate for cutting capital-gains and estate taxestax policies that favor those who Washington regards as “rich.” He is, in short, the kind of Republican that Democrats love to hate, except for one thing: They like Bill Archer. Everybody likes Bill Archer.
The word colleagues most often use to describe him is “gentleman.” He is serious, thoughtful, decent, polite. Second to no one in his antipathy for big government, he nonetheless displays no antipathy toward its individual defenders. As befits his name, this Archer is a straight arrow. He refuses to accept contributions from political action committees, though PACs would jump at the chance to tithe to the most powerful committee chairman in Congress. He embargoed all contact with lobbyists during negotiations over the tax bill, lest he be accused of handing out special favors (but he was anyway). He fills out his own income tax return so that he can know the joys of the ordinary taxpayer. He neither joined nor encouraged the recent GOP uprising in which two other prominent Texans, majority leader Dick Armey and whip Tom DeLay, got caught playing footsie with rebellious conservatives seeking to unseat Speaker Newt Gingrich. As much as he would like to be the architect of a radical restructuring of the federal government, he knows that an eleven-member GOP margin in the House and a popular Democratic president are not the right conditions for success. Archer is a grown-up among brawling school kids.
I spoke with him on a sticky late June afternoon, just minutes before the balanced-budget bill reached the House floor for its initial vote. He was sitting at one end of a conference table in a small room near the House chamber, a Diet Coke can in his right hand. Rather diminutive, he has a round, open face and a retreating hairline. With his large-lens glasses, he looked like the perfect stereotype of an accountant who was about to figure my taxes rather than the entire country’s. As we talked, an aide popped in and out of the room to whisper in his ear about the pace of the floor action and the time remaining before he was scheduled to make a short speech.
At the time, prospects for a happy ending were not great, or so the Washington pundits were saying. Critics charged that Archer’s bill bestowed most of its benefits on the rich, and not one of the sixteen Democrats on his committee had voted for it. (In contrast, the Senate version of the tax cut had substantial Democratic backing.) A major point of contention was the White House’s insistence that the tax cut somehow benefit workers whose earnings were so low that they did not pay income taxes.
“When the Democrats raise taxes on the upper middle class,” Archer said, “they give the benefits to people who don’t pay taxes. Now they want to give the relief to people who don’t pay taxes.” His tone was mild, closer to bemusement than anger. “They say we’re favoring the rich. Seventy-six percent of the benefits of this bill go to people who make between $20,000 and $75,000 a year.”
“That’s not what I read in the papers,” I said.
“No, it’s not. That’s because the Democrats are using the Treasury’s values for calculating income. Do you think you’re rich?”
“Absolutely not.” It occurred to me that thousands of lobbyists in Washington would kill for the opportunity to tell the chairman of Ways and Means, face to face, what I had just said.
“Well, I bet the Treasury does. Do you own your home?” I nodded. “The Treasury imputes to you the rental value of your home as part of your income. If you have mutual funds that have appreciated, the Treasury counts the increase as if it were income.
“And this just boggles my mind: The Treasury says, ‘We know that you’re not reporting part of your income, so we’re going to add a cheating factor.’ By the time they get through, their version of your income is