'Loophole Lloyd' is hardly the guy to shake things up


December 09, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

Lloyd Bentsen as Treasury secretary? Excuse me? This is supposed to be the breath of fresh air that Bill Clinton promised?

Lloyd Bentsen, whose nickname is "Loophole Lloyd" for all the tax breaks he has given big business, is no breath of fresh air.

He is more like a puff of stale dust.

It has been widely reported that Clinton will soon name Bentsen to his Cabinet and he will do so as a signal to calm big business.

But is that why we elected Clinton? To calm things?

I thought it was to shake things up. To change things. To even -- gasp! -- reform things.

But Lloyd Bentsen is no reformer. He is business as usual. Big business as usual.

He is a guy who believes providing breaks for big business is the way to help America.

He is a proponent of exactly what Bill Clinton campaigned against: trickle-down economics.

Help the oil and gas industries and that will help the working man and woman, Bentsen believes. Help the real estate lobby and that will help the ordinary homebuyers.

Trouble is, the tax breaks have trickled up, but very little has trickled down.

I will give him one thing, however: Lloyd Bentsen knows money. Especially when it comes to amassing it for himself.

In 1955, Bentsen abruptly quit a safe seat in Congress to become rich. (A few years earlier he had come to national attention by proposing that the United States drop the atomic bomb on North Korea.)

Now he was striking off on his own in the rough and tumble world of commerce. And with just $7 million in assets provided by his father and uncle, Lloyd managed to make something of himself.

In 1970, Bentsen got back into politics by getting elected to the Senate. But he never lost his skills at raising money.

And though it is now dismissed as the moral equivalent of getting a parking ticket, Bentsen got caught in 1987 shaking down lobbyists for big bucks.

As the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Bentsen decided he needed even more money in his campaign coffers. (He already had $600,000 left over from his last campaign and faced no serious opposition for his next campaign, but if Lloyd Bentsen knows anything he knows you can never have too much dough.)

So Bentsen devised a simple plan: He would sell his office. For cash.

He sent a letter to scores of lobbyists and others telling them they could have breakfast with him once a month for $5,000 down and $5,000 later.

Twenty people immediately signed up, but then a terrible thing happened: Lloyd's "Breakfast Club" became public. And he was forced to return the money and abandon the idea.

Though when the subject came up in the vice presidential debate in 1988, Bentsen said: "It was perfectly legal."

He did allow, however, that he was not perfect. "Even though it's legal, the perception is bad," he said.

And: "I'm not known to make many mistakes, but when I do, it's a doozy."

On Capitol Hill, this is as close as anyone gets to admitting wrongdoing. In Congress, making a mistake does not mean doing wrong. Making a mistake means getting caught doing wrong.

But Lloyd Bentsen was not the least bit tarnished. Michael Dukakis chose him as a running mate in 1988 and for the same reason that Bill Clinton wants him in his Cabinet now:

To send a signal to Wall Street that there will be business as usual.

And, though Bentsen failed to carry his home state for the Dukakis ticket, he did get himself re-elected to the Senate.

Where he has continued to wheel and deal. The "consummate pol . . . crafty and pragmatic," the Dallas Morning News once described him.

But how consummate? How crafty? How pragmatic?

Remember how I said that Bentsen was forced to give back all the Breakfast Club money he shook down?

Well, technically he did. But only technically. And only while the heat was on.

"He later received most of the contributions anyway," the Morning News reported.

And if that's not business as usual in Washington, I don't know what is.

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