Nobody seems to have noticed that last night marked the 20th anniversary of a rare act of conscience on Capitol Hill. A congresswoman from the Philadelphia suburbs sacrificed herself for the national interest, essentially telling her constituents what they needed to hear as opposed to what they wanted to hear.
If only more lawmakers had that kind of guts today, we might be able to break the partisan gridlock.
The night of Aug. 5, 1993, as chronicled on the scene by David Rosenbaum of The New York Times, was “one of the rare moments of real drama in Congress. Almost every representative was seated in the chamber. The galleries were full. Pages and staff assistants lined the walls. Leaders paced the aisles like sheep dogs keeping their flock in line.” At stake, and hanging by a thread, was President Clinton’s five-year economic plan, which sought to slash the deep budget deficit by combining entitlement spending cuts with a rare federal gas tax hike and a tax hike on the top 1.2 percent of income-earners.
The roll call proceeded. Every single House Republican voted No (natch) because the Clinton plan included a tax hike; they warned in apocalyptic language that this particular hike would wreck the economy and trigger a new recession. More than three dozen conservative Democrats also voted No. But the plan ultimately passed, 218-216, only because congresswoman Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, a freshman from a traditionally tax-hating Republican Main Line district, decided to fall on her political sword and do the right thing.
After she cast her vote, Republicans in the chamber pulled out hankies and waved them her way. They crooned, “Bye bye, Margie!” And they were right; in the ’94 midterms, the voters tossed her out. (She had dutifully pledged No New Taxes in 1992.) As she recalled more recently, “I was really good at the four-minute explanation when I went back to my district. But it’s the 30 seconds that kills you”—a reference to the typical TV ad that attacks a politician who has Raised Taxes.
The four-minute explanation was actually quite simple: When you erase a deep budget deficit (which, as history shows, is precisely what the Clinton plan did), you ease the economic sclerosis and help create the conditions for a healthier economy (which is precisely what happened). And you can’t do such things unless you’re willing to stipulate that tax hikes are sometimes necessary for the greater good. On the stump during her re-election race, Margolies-Mezvinsky insisted, “We’ve got to start telling people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.” Bye bye, Margie.
The thing is, she was ultimately vindicated by events—and the hankie-wavers were proven wrong.
Given the boost that the Clinton plan gave to the economy—slashing the budget deficit (from 4.75 percent of GDP to 2.9 percent of GDP in the first two years alone) and helping to create the conditions for the most sustained period of growth in the postwar era, with more than 20 million jobs created—it’s almost comical to read the alarmist tripe that came out of the Republican message shop. Here’s a quote mashup from various Republican congressmen, including future Speaker Newt Gingrich:
The Clinton plan “will in fact kill the current recovery and put us back in a recession. It might take one and a half or two years, but it will happen. … It will kill jobs, kill business, and yes, even kill the higher tax revenues that these suicidal tax increases hope to gain. … People will remember who set loose this dreadful virus into the economic bloodstream of our nation. … This puts the economy in the gutter. … It will raise your taxes, increase the deficit and kill over one million new jobs. … The impact on job creation is going to be devastating. … This is the Democrat machine’s recession.”
Was the Clinton budget plan, as saved by Margolies-Mezvinsky, fully responsible for the ’90s economic growth? Absolutely not; the technology-driven dot-com boom played a big role. But the Republican rhetorical static, which helped sink Margolies-Mezvinsky in ’94, insisted that the tax hike on the rich would trigger a new recession and stunt job creation. Didn’t happen.
How nice it would be, today, if House Republicans had the guts to tell their cocooned conservative constituents what they need to hear, as opposed to what they want to hear—to tell them, for instance, that repealing Obamacare is a fantasy and that threatening to shut down the government on Oct. 1 unless Obamacare is canceled is logistically undoable and politically self-destructive. Alas, feeding the base is what modern politics is all about, and the national interest virtually always yields to the partisan exigencies of the next election.
It turns out, however, that at least one person has marked the 20th anniversary of that budget showdown. That would be Marjorie Margolies, who, after a nearly two-decade hiatus, is currently campaigning for a return to Congress (minus her former married name, Mezvinsky). She has now released a video that highlights her pivotal vote.
The district she seeks to represent is more Democratic than it used to be (thanks in part to a swing-voter backlash against the right-leaning GOP), so it’s arguably safer these days to tout the vote. But if an act of conscience is no longer deemed to be baggage, that, at least, counts as progress.
Best wishes for a speedy recovery, George W. Bush.
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