On one Friday in November, when White House and congressional negotiators were deep in their deliberations over reducing the federal budget deficit, the conversation turned to eliminating the 1988 cost-of-living increase in Social Security benefits.
Enter 87-year-old Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.). Over the weekend, in a videotape that he recorded at his Miami apartment, he thundered about the financial threat to destitute widows and warned House members of the political risks of voting to cut Social Security benefits. Alarmed groups representing the elderly showed the tape at a hastily arranged press conference on the following Monday.
And, just like that, Social Security disappeared from the budget-cutters' agenda.
"As soon as Claude Pepper appeared on television, people ran; that's real power," said an admiring Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), who ranks third in the House Democratic leadership.
To a degree that is rare for any member of Congress, Claude Denson Pepper combines symbolism--his stature as the oldest member of Congress--with the political clout of an accomplished legislator.
Although he represents only a chunk of Miami and Dade County, millions of elderly Americans regard him as their congressman. He gets about 100 letters a day from all over the country, even more when Medicare or Social Security makes headlines.
His walk is a slow shuffle, his glasses are as thick as bottle bottoms and his hearing aids do not quite do the trick. But, without a single page of notes, he can make a gripping 20-minute speech replete with anecdotes, Biblical quotations and a joke or two about the Baptist preacher whose sermons ran so long that the congregation left to get a haircut.
But age alone would make Pepper nothing more than an antediluvian novelty, a man with a personally inscribed picture from Franklin D. Roosevelt on his office mantel. To the symbolism, Pepper adds the power that comes from being chairman of the House Rules Committee, the House's legislative traffic cop.
Sets Terms of Debate
For every bill that goes before the full House, the Rules Committee sets the terms of debate--the number of hours of argument and the quantity and types of amendments that may be offered. As chairman, Pepper can bottle up legislation he considers obnoxious, and he can attach his pet causes to virtually any bill.
"A lot of people in this town are scared of his power; they've got to work in his shadow," said a health industry lobbyist who watched Pepper scuttle a plan to raise the Medicare deductible to $85 from $75 in the recent marathon closing session of Congress.
Adding to Pepper's influence is his work as a powerful campaigner for Democratic candidates, many of whom are now in his debt. In 1982, when the Democratic Party picked up 26 additional House seats, "he was our most potent weapon, more responsible than any other individual in our party," Coelho said. "In 1984, he protected Democrats when the issue was very tough, and in 1986 all the Senate winners used him."
It was in 1986 that the Democrats wrested the Senate from the Republicans as nine seats shifted to Democratic control, and Social Security Commissioner Dorcas R. Hardy said Democrats won at least four of those seats by attacking Republican incumbents on the Social Security issue. Pepper, she said, choosing her words carefully, is "very influential."
Politically, Pepper is an unapologetic exponent of big government, a liberal in a period when Ronald Reagan made the term faintly distasteful in Washington.
"I was a New Dealer before there was a New Deal," he wrote in his recently published autobiography. "I remained one when the ideology behind it came under bitter attack. I remain one today."
In this era of budget austerity, Pepper is promoting a big new government program: care at home for the frail and sick of all ages. At present, Medicare pays only for strictly medical services for Americans 65 and older and the disabled of all ages. Pepper's plan would extend Medicare to pay for housekeepers or aides who provide more menial--but, in Pepper's view, no less important--services.
The cost would be a hefty $23 billion over five years, and Pepper and the co-author of the measure, Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles), want to raise the money by applying the Medicare tax, 1.45% of income, to all earnings, not just the first $45,000 a year. That would mean higher taxes for the 8% of American workers who will make more than that figure this year.
This proposed tax hike makes even many of Pepper's fellow Democrats nervous, a fact that Pepper treats with scorn.
'The Needs Are There'
"They don't want to spend that much money," he said. "People every day are suffering these privations; if there were some way to suspend their agony, I would be very glad to wait. But I don't know any way to do that. The needs are there."
And Republicans regard Pepper's proposal as an open-ended raid on the Treasury. Costs could escalate, they fear, as families currently providing care themselves turned to the government for help. As many as 5 million persons could be eligible after doctors certified that they could not do without help with two or more of the basic activities of daily living: eating, dressing, bathing, going to the toilet and getting out of bed or up from a chair.
Over the protests of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), who as Ways and Means Committee chairman presides over tax bills, Pepper forced a commitment from the Democratic leadership for a vote on his plan next year.
Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento), a member of the House Budget Committee, said that Pepper "puts a tremendous amount of pressure around here on people to support his agenda, because he is so symbolic. But we've got to take a careful look at the funding of any new program. We'd be derelict if we didn't do so."
Has 100 Co-Sponsors
Pepper doesn't blink. He has more than 100 co-sponsors in the 435-member House, and he is confident he can win a floor vote. "And, if the President does veto it," he promised, "we're gonna have one of the damnedest fights you ever heard of."
Political scrapping is nothing new for Claude Pepper, who considers himself just a generation removed from the Civil War.
In fact, for Pepper, the House of Representatives is a second political career. He was elected to the Senate in 1936 to complete the term of a man who died in office. He ran for a full term in 1938 as a youthful, scrappy liberal protege of Franklin Roosevelt, campaigning for a federal wage-and-hour bill considered political poison in the South.
After he won the primary, assuring election in solidly Democratic Florida, Roosevelt greeted him at the White House, saying, "Claude, if you were a woman, I'd kiss you." On the cover of Time magazine in 1938, he was dubbed the "Florida fighting cock" for campaigning for the radical 25-cent-an-hour minimum wage, which Congress ultimately adopted.
He broke with President Harry S. Truman, tried to draft Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for President as a Democrat in 1948 and lost his Senate seat in a dirty 1950 primary campaign in which he was bitterly denounced as "Red Pepper."
Supports Farm Subsidies
Pepper's taste for an activist government can be traced to his youth in Dudleyville, Ala., where his father was an unsuccessful cotton farmer. Pepper remembers with bitterness that the family was forced to borrow at 12% interest to finance the next year's crop. As a legislator, he became a fervent supporter of government price supports and loans for farmers.
When Joseph Pepper could not make a living at cotton, he labored without much profit at raising cattle and running a furniture store and a grocery. Finally, he found security as a marshal and then a deputy sheriff. Cash was scarce, but strong family bonds "provided the sense of physical security that money brings to the children of the wealthy," Claude Pepper said in his autobiography.
He still speaks in the honeyed drawl of his south Alabama boyhood, and his speaking style retains the rhythms of a more courtly era of political discourse. Here is a passage from a speech appealing for support for his ambitious home-care legislation:
"All we're talking about, my friends, is enabling every man, woman and child in America to live as healthily and as happily as they can, as long as the Lord will permit them to be upon this good Earth."
Pepper taught fifth grade after graduating from high school so that he could earn money to attend the University of Alabama. He was graduated in 1921 and went to Harvard Law School, where he got a taste of political campaigning by making speeches in Boston for an unsuccessful Democratic senatorial candidate.
Taught Law in Arkansas
Pepper taught law at the University of Arkansas--future Senator J. William Fulbright was a student--and then moved to Florida, where he began a successful law practice, handling land development work and defending murderers.
He won a term in the Florida Legislature and boasts of his first successful bill--repealing the fishing license fee for the elderly.
In Washington after he entered the Senate in 1936, Pepper, who had backed Roosevelt at the 1932 Democratic convention, said the country was like a car with a dead battery and that Roosevelt supplied the jump start. One columnist wrote that Pepper often confused Roosevelt and Jesus Christ.
"Franklin Roosevelt will live forever in the gratitude of the American people because he gave them Social Security," Pepper said. "I'd like to say to President Reagan, 'You can give them something more meaningful, you can give them health care.' "
Pepper's ultimate goal, after home-care benefits for the elderly, is a national health insurance plan for Americans of all ages.
In foreign affairs, Pepper was an early interventionist, sounding the call for U.S. action on the side of Britain against Nazi Germany. "You cannot have Hitlerism . . . and democracy . . . living on the same Earth and occupying the same time and space . . . " he said in a 1941 speech before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. "They are opposed as God and the Devil."
In March, 1940, the Florida senator proposed the first lend-lease bill to supply Britain with military materials. It got just one vote, his own, in the Foreign Relations Committee. A group called Mothers for America paraded in Washington, hanging an effigy of Pepper with a sash reading, "Claude Benedict Arnold Pepper." The effigy now is a memento in the Mildred and Claude Pepper Library at Florida State University at Tallahassee.
Pepper's first serious reelection challenge was mounted in 1950. After Pepper's brief campaign to draft Eisenhower in place of Truman two years earlier, Truman ostentatiously remained neutral during the bitter primary fight between Pepper and George Smathers, who had been a political protege of Pepper.
Smathers, backed by a big campaign war chest, ripped into Pepper's liberalism, denouncing him as the candidate of "certain Northern labor bosses, all the communists, all the socialists, all the radicals and the fellow travelers."
Classic Political Smear
The campaign produced a classic piece of American political smear literature. In rural areas of Florida, Pepper was denounced in anonymous leaflets that read: "Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, practiced celibacy."
Opened Law Offices
Smathers won handily. In defeat, Pepper opened law offices in Washington and Tallahassee. He acquired some prestigious corporate clients, acting as the Florida associate for Cravath, Swaine & Moore, a major New York firm.
Pepper returned to Congress in 1962, winning election to the House from a new Miami district that included large numbers of elderly, retired voters. Initially, the district was dominated by Jewish and Catholic retirees who had migrated from the North.
Although one-third of his constituents are still over 65, the ethnic make-up of the district has become distinctively Cuban, and at least half the residents are of Latino origin. On two key issues in the fervently anti-communist Cuban community, Pepper is a strong supporter of Radio Marti, which broadcasts U.S. government messages to Cuba, and he always votes for aid to the Nicaraguan rebels.
After his return to Congress, Pepper voted a solid liberal line but did not carve out a distinctive role in the early years. In 1977, however, he became chairman of the House Aging Committee. His skillfully crafted hearings, with dramatic witnesses on such issues as nursing homes, began drawing attention.
In 1981, President Reagan proposed cutting early retirement benefits under Social Security. Congress immediately spurned the idea, and the White House retreated and formed a commission to study Social Security's financial problems. It was a political bonanza for the Democrats in general and for Pepper in particular.
In the Right Place
"He was the right man in the right place at the right time," said John Rother, legislative director of the 23-million-member American Assn. of Retired Persons. "You can position yourself, but you don't become a newsworthy person unless you're involved in a major conflict. What got him newsworthy was 1981 and the battle between Congress and the White House over Social Security."
The historical record supports Rother's assessment. A computer search of newspaper and magazine references to Pepper shows 214 references between 1975 and 1980, and a staggering 982 listings since 1981, making him one of the nation's most prominent political figures.
The graying of America reinforces Claude Pepper's prestige and authority. One-third of the massive federal budget, about $300 billion a year, is spent for Social Security and Medicare, and those outlays will grow inexorably as ever more Americans reach advanced ages.
"It's a great joy for a young fellow like me to be here," Pepper said at a Christmas party for 15 centenarians, where he chatted with a 107-year-old woman who once walked a circus tightrope and a 102-year-old retired Chicago bandleader.
Pepper waved away a glass of milk and chose some white wine instead. "I've been taking a glass or two for a long time," he said, smiling, "and maybe this will help me become a centenarian too."