From Packwood to Roth

September 15, 1995

Ethics, morals and decency aside, there will be no cheers from deficit hawks as Bob Packwood flutters ignominiously from the Senate. The Oregon Republican was a true member of the flock -- one of those rare legislators who not only considered the nation's indebtedness a top-priority problem but did something about it.

His successor as chairman of the Finance Committee, Sen. William Roth of Delaware, is a bird of a different feather. He first gained national attention in 1981 as the lesser-known author of the Kemp-Roth tax cut bill -- the centerpiece of Reaganomics. A supply-sider to the core, Mr. Roth has never seen a tax cut he doesn't like -- and the deficit be damned.

The Packwood-to-Roth switch is a microcosm of the huge intellectual divide in the Republican Party between balanced-budget traditionalists and those who pin their faith on economic growth by cutting taxes. Mr. Roth will tell you, as Ronald Reagan did before, that the deficit will be controlled under supply-side theory as a booming economy churns out higher revenues. The only trouble is that it didn't happen in the 1980s and it isn't likely to happen in the 1990s. Enthusiasm for spending cuts usually wanes in the face of constituent expectations.

Mr. Roth's current hobby horses include the House-passed $500 child tax credit even for persons in the $200,000-a-year bracket, sharp cutbacks in the capital gains tax, reductions in estate taxes and an expanded Individual Retirement Account system that would amount to another big tax break. All would benefit the wealthy. The only tax increase he would favor would hit the working poor by crimping the Earned Income Tax Credit -- a law that encourages work rather than welfare.

It is doubtful, however, that Mr. Roth's personal legislative program will have the impact for now that often derives from a powerful chairmanship. The Finance Committee already is overwhelmed with measures affecting not only taxes but Medicare, Medicaid, welfare and farm subsidies. His task is to move pending legislation out of his new committee in a matter of weeks.

No wonder Senate Republican leader Bob Dole clumsily tried to keep Mr. Packwood in his chairmanship for another 60 days. No wonder congressional insiders fret that Mr. Roth does not have Mr. Packwood's detailed knowledge of tax policy or his finesse in cutting a deal.

Like justices of the Supreme Court, congressional committee chairmen sometimes rise to the occasion. Mr. Roth, a veteran lawmaker in his fifth term, is much liked on Capitol Hill. He is a team player, and a moderate on environmental policy, who knows how to accommodate. This is his chance to make his mark -- provided he puts the nation on a path to fiscal sanity.

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