On the night before D-day almost a half-century ago, U.S. Army paratrooper Sam Gibbons dropped behind enemy lines in France and found himself immediately under fire from a German machine-gun nest a short distance away.
Gibbons, now a congressional veteran of three decades, may find himself parachuting into another hot spot at the age of 73.
Although he doesn’t like to talk about it, the Florida Democrat knows that Washington insiders are sizing him up with greater intensity these days for only one reason: A federal grand jury may elevate him to the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Gibbons, a Tampa lawyer who has been a hard-working but fairly obscure lawmaker since 1962, would be plunged into a legislative firefight if, as many expect, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) is indicted on corruption charges.
Rostenkowski, who has denied wrongdoing, has hired a team of experienced trial lawyers after federal prosecutors gave indications that he is a prime suspect in their investigation of the House post office.
Under rules of the House Democratic caucus, chairmen of committees must step aside once they are indicted and the next-senior member--Gibbons, in this case--automatically becomes acting chairman.
Is Gibbons ready to take the reins of the committee that originates all tax legislation and deals with Social Security, Medicare and trade bills?
“Sure,” he replied, smiling affably. “I’ve been training for it for 30 years.”
And what course would he follow in the powerful post?
“The agenda I would set would be the agenda of the Democratic Party,” he replied. “I don’t have a personal agenda.”
Despite Gibbons’ self-confident air, some of his colleagues wonder whether anyone can replace Rostenkowski, a deal-maker with few peers on Capitol Hill who seems able to coerce or persuade other Democrats to follow his lead on taxes.
Gibbons, by contrast, appears relatively aloof from the kind of inside-the-House lobbying that moves legislation along. “He (Gibbons) just doesn’t have the patience to do that,” said one congressional aide who asked not to be identified.
Although he is chairman of the trade subcommittee, for example, Gibbons was passed over as the chief Democratic advocate of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Instead, that assignment went to Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento), a more junior member of the Ways and Means panel who is a Rostenkowski loyalist.
At times, Gibbons’ strong views on issues, notably his outspoken advocacy of free trade, has set him apart from many Democrats who have expressed more concern about protecting American jobs.
But Gibbons says he is following classic Democratic principles, first espoused by Franklin D. Roosevelt and followed by every Democratic President since then, on the virtues of expanding commerce across international borders. “No country in the world has ever extended its standard of living by closing its markets,” he once said.
Asked about the clash between that view and those of other Democrats, he snapped: “I’m not sure who’s out of step.”
Similarly, Gibbons has moved out of the mainstream to endorse the value added tax, or VAT, as a replacement for the existing federal income tax--a radical solution with only marginal political support.
“I’m trying to open a national discussion,” he said in an interview. “The present tax law is horribly wasteful. It’s costing us billions to collect, it distorts economic decisions and it’s exporting American jobs. . . . My version of VAT is not regressive and not inflationary.”
As for health care, Gibbons suggests it might be simpler just to extend the existing Medicare program to everyone rather than come up with a new approach. Even so, he is ready to back President Clinton’s health care solution.
Gibbons got his start in the Florida Legislature in the 1950s, after World War II duty with the 101st Airborne Division. He was regarded as a liberal who fought against the “Pork Chop Gang” seeking to preserve rural domination of that body. In his first campaign for Congress, Gibbons defeated a hard-line segregationist and has rarely been seriously challenged for reelection.
Once a product of the Old South, Gibbons voted against landmark civil rights bills in 1964 and 1968 but changed, along with the New South, and co-sponsored the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1990.
His closest contest came last year, when he polled 53% of the vote in a contest against a well-financed Republican opponent. Even so, he acknowledges that he has a relatively safe seat, adding: “I’m trying to keep it that way.”