Trashed by the right, Sarbanes has a way of prevailing

Frank A. DeFilippo

September 02, 1993|By Frank A. DeFilippo

SEN. Paul Sarbanes is the liberal conservatives love to hate.

And the Maryland Democrat has been trashed by the best of them. He's been slimed on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, serially scolded by the Washington Times, blasted in USA Today, berated by columnist Robert D. Novak and mildly chastised by The Sun. Mr. Sarbanes has been bushwacked by virtually the entire cloakroom of conservative senators and representatives.

And for all the celebrated attention, he's still called the "stealth senator" in his own state. Despite the fact that he's up for re-election next year, Mr. Sarbanes is probably better recognized by viewers of C-Span than by residents of Maryland.

What started the fuss and the rush for the blood-pressure cuff turns on an arcane fulcrum called "monetary policy," which is about as interesting in Palookaville, Md., as the fine print on the back of a box of Fruit Loops.

But in conservative quarters it's considered an article of faith, the kind of dogma nobody messes with and a fragile mystery of economics that banshees like to bluster about on radio talk shows.

The story plays out like Economics 101 with a plot. During the budget debate, Mr. Sarbanes argued that a deficit reduction plan without a companion stimulus package would be "contractionary" -- a Harvard Business School word that means money would be drained out of the economy, thus blunting any growth in jobs.

It was that fancy word that caused the trouble. The conservative press and the righter-than-thou blabbermouths on Capitol Hill attempted to portray Mr. Sarbanes as being opposed to President Bill Clinton's deficit reduction plan (Mr. Clinton's phrase) when, in fact, the senator supported the Clinton budget every inch of the way.

But to Mr. Sarbanes' dismay, the stimulus package was defeated, talked to death by dithyrambic Republicans in a lockstep filibuster, leaving the nation's economy naked and vulnerable to further downward pull on economic activity. Simply put, Mr. Sarbanes believes that if fiscal policy isn't doing the job, it should be supplemented by action on monetary policy.

To compensate for the defeat, Mr. Sarbanes, with the testimony and support of economists of different political stripes, encouraged Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan to adjust monetary policy to get the economy bubbling along again. But Mr. Greenspan's an inflation fighter at a time when recession and deflation are more of a threat than inflation. He refused Mr. Sarbanes' offer.

But as a senator (and former congressman) who's been around Capitol Hill nearly a quarter of a century, and who has a degree in economics as well, Mr. Sarbanes knew what to do next.

He promptly introduced legislation that would prohibit the 12 regional presidents of Federal Reserve banks from voting on monetary policy, leaving this tetchy issue solely to the reserve's board of governors.

Here's the hook: The seven governors are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The 12 regional bank presidents are not; they're creatures, ultimately, of local commercial banks, whose directors are as doctrinaire about monetary policy as they are about bottom lines and rubber checks.

The beat goes on, with Mr. Sarbanes and Mr. Greenspan sharpshooting each other over what's best for the nation and all of us who're picking up the tab. And poor Mr. Clinton's caught in the middle.

Mr. Sarbanes is every inch a match for the stand-pat Mr. Greenspan. The former is a Princeton economist, a Harvard lawyer and an Oxford historian who served as executive director of John F. Kennedy's Council of Economic Advisers when economist Walter Heller was chairman. These days he duels fiscal and monetary policy with Mr. Greenspan from his loftly perch as co-chairman of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress.

There are those wits and warlocks who consider Mr. Sarbanes vulnerable as he enters next year's elections, and a predicate in the argument is the senator's steadfast liberal record at a time when the electorate is tuned out and ticked off. Even a recent poll showed that Mr. Sarbanes might be an easy target, but the fallacy in the survey was its simple yes/no question and its failure to include matchups of specific candidates.

Yet it's a basic law of politics that it's impossible to beat somebody with nobody, and so far no Democrat or Republican has tiptoed through the tulips to take on the senator from Baltimore. There's talk about a challenge, but that's all so far.

In three previous elections, conservatives in Washington and around the country etched Mr. Sarbanes' name high on their hit lists. And each time Mr. Sarbanes proved that he's not as out of step with his state as they like to say he is.

So put a sock in it, Wall Street Journal.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes every other Thursday on Maryland politics.

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