Gramm’s Politics of Controversy : Plan for Balanced Budget Keeps Capital Off Balance

Times Staff Writer

Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), whose proposal to balance the federal budget has tied Congress in knots for a month, is serving only his first year in the Senate, but he is fast becoming Congress’ leading practitioner of the politics of controversy.

His balanced-budget proposal, adopted in separate versions by the House and Senate, has raised howls of protest from the White House and from liberal House Democrats. But Gramm takes it all in stride. “Doing the Lord’s work,” he told reporters recently, “is getting harder and harder.”

Gramm demonstrates a new reality in Congress: Clever but impatient members can get things done without waiting for their seniority to carry them to a party leadership position or a committee chairmanship. He never put much stock in the admonition of a fellow Texan, former House Speaker Sam Rayburn, that to get along on Capitol Hill, members should go along with their leaders.


“You now have an open and fluid enough institution, especially given the media coverage, that the individual who sets himself out as a kind of rebel can get a lot of attention,” said congressional scholar Norman J. Ornstein. “And there seniority means nothing.”

This is the same Gramm who, as a Democratic House member serving in just his second term, jumped ranks and teamed up with Republicans to force President Reagan’s deep domestic spending cuts through the Democratic-controlled House in 1981.

And it is the same Gramm who switched parties in 1983 and successfully ran for the Senate last year.

“He was the traitor,” said Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), a member of the House Democratic leadership.

As a Republican, Gramm has continued his tradition of roiling congressional tempers by sponsoring, along with Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), a proposal to trigger automatic across-the-board spending cuts each year if Congress fails to meet a series of annual deficit targets declining to zero by 1991.

The Senate and House, having attached separate versions of the Gramm-Rudman measure to a bill to lift the national debt ceiling beyond $2 trillion, have failed to reach a compromise. And if Congress does not enact that bill by Thursday, the Treasury Department says, the government will default Friday on $7 billion worth of interest payments due that day.

But that does not stop Gramm. Seven years among the smooth-talking, deal-cutting politicians of Washington have not softened the hard-line conservatism that Gramm, whose round, open face and relaxed manner give the appearance of a middle-aged Charlie Brown, began preaching as an economics professor at Texas A&M; University.

‘Fat’ Poor People

He stands by such controversial views as his 1981 contention that “we’re the only nation in the world where all our poor people are fat,” although he now says he merely meant to emphasize “how inefficient and poorly designed our (welfare) programs are.”

Dogged and single-minded as most true believers, the 43-year-old Gramm also has a keen eye for political opportunity. “He’s clever and plays right at the edge of the rules,” said former House Budget Committee Chairman James R. Jones (D-Okla.).

Gramm’s route into politics was circuitous. His early academic record included flunking third, seventh and ninth grades, but then he completed his undergraduate and doctoral work in less than six years. A tenured professor by the age of 30, he became interested in politics after testifying at a 1973 congressional hearing.

A 1976 bid against Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) flopped, but in 1978 he squeaked through the Democratic primary to make his first successful race for the House.

Sees Big Chance

Gramm recognized that Reagan’s 1980 victory was his first big chance to get his views across.

In 1981, he finagled a prized seat on the House Budget Committee by promising to support whatever budget the panel produced. He promptly carried intelligence from the Democrats’ strategy sessions to newly appointed Budget Director David A. Stockman, and it was Gramm who won the conservative Democratic support crucial to pushing the White House budget through the House.

Gramm boasts that “the program I put in the House created 8 million more jobs, stopped inflation, rebuilt defense, saved Social Security and cut taxes.”

Democrats say it triggered the worst recession since the Great Depression and left gaping budget deficits and a record trade imbalance. “Sen. Gramm, in my opinion, is more responsible for the mess this country is in than any other person than Mr. Reagan,” said House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.). “If the nation continues to follow Mr. Gramm, Lord only knows where we’re going to end up.”

‘I Have an Idea’

As a Senate Republican, Gramm, who describes himself as “the 97th member of the Senate in seniority,” was denied a seat on the Budget Committee and found himself on the fringes of this year’s budget debate. “I waited for everybody else to come forward with a way of dealing with the problem,” Gramm said. “Nobody did. It got down to No. 97, and I did have an idea. And the most powerful words in a political debate are, ‘I have an idea.’ ”

Few in Congress could fathom the precise implications of the Gramm-Rudman plan for the budget or the economy. Democrats charged that it would gut social programs and trigger a recession; the Reagan Administration protested that it would slash defense spending.

But anyone up for reelection could read it plainly in political terms: A vote against a balanced-budget plan spelled political suicide.

Democrats’ Alternative

Democrats this time decided not to fight the proposal but to put forward an alternative of their own, calling for deeper cuts in military spending and sparing programs for the poor. Whether either side will be able to claim victory remains uncertain.

But for Gramm, the battle is already won. Once again, his detractors joke that the most dangerous spot in Washington lies between Gramm and a television camera, and Gramm now finds himself holding court daily with the media over the ramifications of his budget proposal.

For that, Gramm wins the envy of his colleagues and the respect of political analysts. Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, said: “He has a good feel--it’s instinctive, I think--for when an opening is there and how to seize it.”