Tempers exploded and emotions ran amok in the House of Representatives in the weeks leading up to last Thursday's vote on Medicare. And so it was probably inevitable that an exasperated senior Democrat busted out of a closed committee room, called the GOP "a bunch of fascists" and lurched at a Republican.
"Let go of my tie!" yelped Bill Thomas, the Republican congressman from Bakersfield, as a television camera memorialized the harmless tiff that came to be known as "the brawl in the hall."
Around this civilized place, any such display is tantamount to a bar fight, the act of a man pushed to the brink. And so it might have been equally inevitable that the target was the tart-tongued Thomas, a lawmaker with an intellect so sharp he is considered one of the brightest members of the House, and a temper so mercurial, some say he may be one of the meanest.
GOP colleagues heap praise on him but acknowledge his rough edges. "Once in a while he kind of erupts," conceded his friend Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.). And admiring Santa Clarita Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon allows: "He's impatient with people who know less than he does. . . . He does not come across as a humble person."
Relegated to minority status in Congress for 16 years, the once-obscure Thomas has emerged as "the brains behind" the Medicare Preservation Act approved last week, revamping for the first time in 30 years the government insurance plan that covers 37 million seniors. He arguably is the most powerful member of the California delegation and an influential part of the new GOP majority.
As chairman of the Ways and Means health subcommittee, this bespectacled, nine-term congressman sits at the center of the most vital plank of his party's seven-year plan to wipe out the deficit. If Medicare reform fails, so goes the balanced budget. It was his task to cut growth by a whopping $270 billion, the single largest chunk of deficit savings. And he is tampering with a health plan so vital to the well-being of the nation's politically potent seniors that it has been called "the third rail"--touch it and die.
But many say there are few lawmakers better suited to the painstaking task of rewriting a thicket of techno-jargon than the former Bakersfield College government instructor who considers Jefferson's "Manual" "a fun book," who can tell you precisely what's in his pants pockets without looking, who takes apart computers and rearranges the insides for a good time. When Republicans convened this session to run the House for the first time in 40 years, they asked Thomas to preside to make sure the party was not embarrassed by amateur parliamentary gaffes.
The aristocratic tone of voice and sometimes imperious bearing that Democrats found imminently ignorable those many years is grating and exasperating now that the gavel is in his hand.
He couldn't care less. Generally speaking, Thomas is quite pleased with himself. For the first time in 17 years he goes to work in the morning with the votes to accomplish what he wants. His schoolmasterly penchant for explaining anything--from the merits of a good, cheap, utilitarian pen to the properties of liquefied natural gas--has found the perfect home in the complicated world of Medicare.
"I have some knacks, one of them is retention," Thomas explains confidently while riding one recent afternoon through his Kern County district in his burgundy Ford Taurus. "I can retain numbers. I comprehend. That's one of my talents. Other people have other skills, interpersonal maybe, or backslappers, or whatever it is they do. My stock in trade always has been knowledge."
If there is one thing Thomas cannot abide, it is not knowing something. He never took shop at Garden Grove High School so he took apart an engine and put it back together. When he cleans his car, he takes the seats out. It occurred to him when he joined the health subcommittee in 1993 that he didn't know much about Medicare, so he spent the next two years studying it. Now fluent in acronyms and subsections, he comes to the table armed with the facts and expects as much of his colleagues. They often disappoint. That's when he blows.
"I don't suffer fools lightly," the congressman said unabashedly when asked to explain his occasional explosions of temper.
The eruptions build like an angry volcano. Something rubs him the wrong way--most recently Hayward Democrat Pete Stark's suggestion during a Ways and Means meeting that Newt Gingrich took a bribe from the American Medical Assn.
Thomas leans forward on crossed arms. His voice is a nasal staccato, every consonant enunciated. His eyes shift side to side. "When you TALK the way you talk, MIS-ter Stark, you BET-ter have the facts to BACK IT UP. . . .," he barks, proceeding to brand him "childish" and "an embarrassment" until someone suggests the debate go on with "a little less heat."
All of this might convey the impression that Thomas is a pompous intellectual. In fact, there's another side to the 53-year-old who lived in government housing as a child and takes in stray cats. He was visibly moved when his dog Malcolm died last summer. He changes his own oil and details cars for his staff, some of whom have been with him more than 15 years.
"He can be a very decent and compassionate individual," said Rep. Vic Fazio of West Sacramento, chairman of the House Democrats. "But sometimes the impression is that he is such an aggressive partisan that people tend not to get beyond that."
The back seat of the Taurus is too small to accommodate his legs and, anyway, Bill Thomas prefers to drive than be chauffeured--something about being in control. But he consents to sit there for an interview on the way to the tiny town of Taft to chat with oil producers at a smoky bar called the White Elephant.
He is talking about his parents; his father was a Truman Democrat, his mother a devoted Republican. Two hearty people of conviction, as he remembers them, who never had the benefit of high school diplomas.
Thomas stops abruptly, overcome by emotion. His voice now is strangely high-pitched, the words come haltingly and with great pain. It was only eight years ago that Gertrude Thomas was killed and her husband critically injured in a head-on collision in Kern County on their way to watch their son the congressman ride in a parade.
Virgil Thomas never fully recovered, surviving another three years in a convalescent home, watched over by his only son. The tragedy helped shape the congressman's view of health care when he took his place on the subcommittee years later, if only to ground him in the real world of doctors and insurance forms that so many seniors face.
"In this kind of a job, people have an automatic stereotypical profile of you. Obviously you are Republican, you are not sensitive toward people who work," Thomas goes on, his composure restored. "Most of what I knew about Medicare has been in an academic way, reading about people's problems. So following the accident, when my father was in intensive care for six months and I had to go through the estate stuff of my mother . . . I got a pretty good dosage of what it is to deal with it."
The plan that Thomas helped shepherd through the House calls for the biggest scale-back in Medicare history, including increases in monthly premiums and incentives for the elderly to join health maintenance organizations. Alternative plans would be made available to those who could afford them.
Without revision, all sides agree, Medicare will be bankrupt by 2002. Thomas has been warning his constituents of this for months, dismissing Democrat accusations that the true purpose of the cuts is to offset a $245-billion tax break for the well-to-do.
"Something has to change or the system implodes, kind of like folks who live on credit cards. They live great for a while, then something happens," he tells a group of Kern County doctors between bites of lasagna on a paper plate. They are impressed by his mastery of the subject, and their approval is no small compliment, considering one of them is a doctor of internal medicine and descendant of Albert Einstein, not to mention a loyal Democrat.
"He has a good grasp of the needs of patients in general," Dr. Hans Einstein later says of Thomas. "He has a sensitivity to the needs of the army of physicians that patients need in their war against disease."
But the same rhetoric seemed to fall flat just two hours before as Thomas sat with half a dozen senior citizens in his Bakersfield office, going over the details of his vision of Medicare but never really asking their opinions or listening to their fears.
"It took 35 years of Medicare to get to this place," one senior later confides. "How in the world can we repair it in seven? I have a feeling when you are meeting with Bill, he wants to get his point across to you rather than hear what you have to say. His professorial attitude is so innate in him that he probably doesn't listen. He speaks. And there isn't the time for us to say, 'Look, this is a real problem for us. . . .' "
This is a concern often expressed by critics of the reform movement, whether Thomas and his colleagues appreciate the human impact of their work.
"People say I'm not as touchy-feely as I should be," Thomas counters. "But I never ran for the job to be touchy-feely. I ran for the job to make law. . . . All they see is the work side of me. They don't see the other side of me. It's hard tolet it come out when you're sitting in a closed meeting trying to figure out what to do with the provider service network."
In Washington, Thomas is better known as an attack dog. Many Democrats dismiss him as viciously partisan while some Republicans find his pugnacious independence disloyal. His friendship with Newt Gingrich has been spotty to say the least, notwithstanding their chummy beginnings 17 years ago as freshman roommates in a rented house in Arlington, Va.
Gingrich was divorcing his first wife when Thomas, a fellow college professor, invited him to use the house while his own wife and two children were at home in Kern County. They often spoke over dinner of future plans. But a few years later, Gingrich masterminded a drive to remove Thomas as the ranking member of the House Administration Committee, suggesting he was cozying up to Democrats. Thomas prevailed, holding onto his committee post with an eloquent speech before his Republican colleagues.
"I won't fall down and roll over because he's the Speaker and he says I'm supposed to," Thomas says with a candor rare in these parts when it comes to discussing the powerful Gingrich. "The rocky times are behind us. He tried to remove me and . . . I beat him flat out. So he had to figure out a way to deal with me."
Thomas is the only Californian to head a full committee--House Oversight--that monitors the internal workings of the House, from ice deliveries to the Library of Congress. Seniority dictated that he also chair the health subcommittee, and when it came to Medicare, Gingrich brought him to the center of the fold.
While the House leadership engineered the Medicare bill, Thomas was, as House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas put it, "the brains behind the mob."
"He's a brilliant man," Armey went on, standing in the hall of the House chamber minutes after casting his ballot in Thursday's vote. "He has an amazing capability to conceptualize a model and integrate the details, then move the details around without breaking the parameters of the model. I frankly marvel at him."
"No one person did this alone," said Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer of Texas. "But Bill was clearly the No. 1 person to come forward with details and solutions and understand the complexities of the bill. He is exceedingly bright and has exceptional knowledge in health care issues."
Such a pivotal role means Thomas will share the glory or the grief when the voters pass judgment on Medicare reform.
"I don't ever look at the down side on those sorts of things," Thomas says, characteristically oblivious to the pressure and thoroughly confident he is the man for the job. "I believe, and I don't know how else to say this, that if you had a vote of the [Republican] conference, I would win that vote as the person who should be doing this."
Just the sort of self-confidence critics find insufferable and may have compelled 75-year-old Florida Democrat Sam Gibbons to go after his tie last month.
Gibbons isn't talking, and Thomas isn't saying much. "An unfortunate incident in which someone couldn't use the tools of civilization," he muttered, dismissing the entire episode.
And why not? His Medicare bill just sailed through the House. And a couple of days ago, Rush Limbaugh sent him a new tie.
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Profile: Rep. Bill Thomas
* Born: Dec. 6, 1941
* Residence: Bakersfield
* Education: San Francisco State; BA 1963, MA 1965
* Career highlights: Professor of American government, Bakersfield College; California Assembly, 1975-79
* Hobbies: Collecting cars, fixing things
* Family: Married with two children
* Quote: "I never ran for the job to be touchy-feely. I ran for the job to make law."