Eye for detail, taste for reform

Cardin has built his reputation working on important issues that lack glamour

Sun Profile

Maryland Votes 2006

10 Days Until Nov. 7

October 28, 2006|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,SUN REPORTER

In the frenzy of a highly partisan Washington during the late 1990s, it was no small feat to get Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt to agree about anything. Let alone something as politically charged and complex as tax reform.

But Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, working with a Republican ally, Rep. Rob Portman of Ohio, managed it. Not only did the GOP-led House and Senate approve their bill modernizing the Internal Revenue Service, but President Bill Clinton signed it.

"This bill shows what we can do when we work together, when we put the progress of America ahead of our partisan concerns, when we put our people over politics," Clinton said during the July 1998 bill signing, with the two lawmakers joining him in the East Room of the White House.

"It is how I believe we can continue to make the tax code fairer for our people."

Tax and pension reform might not be sexy stuff, or easily packaged in a 30-second television ad, but Cardin's quiet work on the issues is a cornerstone of his 20-year congressional career. As the 10-term congressman campaigns to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, Cardin's supporters say his collaboration with Portman, now the Bush administration's budget director, illustrates that the Baltimore County Democrat can work effectively across party lines.

They also say that Cardin's work on pension issues, culminating in a 2001 proposal that allows workers to set aside more money in their retirement accounts, among other changes, shows that he is unafraid to take on an unglamorous subject.

"He absolutely has spent a great deal of time learning the issues, he's an extremely substantive guy," said Brian Graff, executive director of the American Society of Pension Professionals and Actuaries in Arlington. "The wonkiness that he portrays is not fake, and that's a good thing. He would, in my opinion, walk into the Senate being one of the smartest people in the room."

Cardin's work on tax issues has also put him in close contact with some of the wealthiest special interests in Washington. The legislation he has championed can significantly affect financial services, insurance companies and other industry groups - many of which have donated heavily to his campaigns over the years.

During the Senate contest this year, the congressman's critics - principally his Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele - have pointed to that special interest money as evidence that Cardin is part of an entrenched Washington establishment. But his GOP critics have not pointed to any votes that show Cardin has been directly influenced by those donations.

And Cardin's allies - such as former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, a Democrat who championed IRS reform on the Senate side - have said Cardin has proved that his loyalty is to his constituents, not deep-pockets donors.

"He understands that these sorts of things are the sorts of things that make a real difference in people's lives," said Kerrey, now president of the New School in New York.

Details of policy

Entering Congress in 1987 after two decades in the Maryland House of Delegates and a run as House speaker, Cardin had already built a reputation as a lawmaker willing to delve into the details of policy. As a delegate, he worked to limit teacher pensions to help balance the state budget during skyrocketing inflation. It was an unpopular position in the early 1980s, but Cardin stood by it, saying then - as he often does in his stump speeches - that fiscal responsibility and a balanced budget are keys to good government.

Once elected to Congress, and after successfully landing a seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Cardin gravitated again to the pension issue. But this time he had a broader and more pressing concern - that aging Americans were not ready for retirement.

"We had a problem that we weren't saving enough as a nation," Cardin, 63, said in a recent interview. "We tend to spend too much and not save enough."

He also had an unlikely partner by his side: Portman, whom President Bush has famously nicknamed the Mule because of his persistent promotion of the administration's tax cuts.

In many ways, the congressmen could not have been more different. Trim and graying, with a Boy Scout's earnest look about him, Portman is a Midwesterner who cut his political teeth in President George H.W. Bush's administration and later served as U.S. trade representative during the second Bush presidency. Bespectacled and stocky, Cardin is a reliable vote for the Democratic Party.

But they are both lawyers and, associates say, similarly tenacious and persuasive.

Trust and respect

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a North Dakota Democrat who sits on Ways and Means, said they have been so effective over the past decade in pushing pension reform that he dubbed them the issue's Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

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