William Steiger: Supply-side And Conscience

March 17th, 2009 at 11:32 pm | 1 Comment |

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Most of the high-flying, buy viagra college-bound high school seniors I talk to want to be Senators someday. An aura of Roman grandeur and world-spanning ambition still clings to the upper chamber of Congress, order while the House is seen as a trough where undistinguished representatives root through the muddy business of politics and mundane government operations. And yet it was William A. Steiger, a Republican Congressman from Wisconsin, whom many knowledgeable observers consider to have been the Republican Party’s greatest might-have-been, the individual who might have had the most significant impact on Congress and the shape of the GOP if he had not died of a sudden heart attack at age 40. Columnist George Will spoke for many when he lamented that Steiger’s death cut short “what would have been one of the most distinguished careers Congress has known.”

Steiger was a political prodigy. At age 14, he raced through his summer camp chores so he could listen to live radio broadcasts from the 1952 GOP convention, where father was a delegate pledged to Robert Taft. He was named to his first government position at age 16, became national chairman of the College Republicans at age 20, and was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly at age 22.  When he was elected to Congress in 1966, at age 28, he was the youngest member of the House. He looked even younger than his age, and frequently was mistaken for a page.

Steiger considered himself a conservative. He had started out in politics as a supporter of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, the anti-Communist crusader who divided the GOP as well as the nation. Over time, however, he came to believe that Republicans had to do more to respond to the real needs of most Americans, and that programs had to be judged on their efficacy rather than on ideological criteria. As a state legislator, he sponsored Wisconsin’s first open-housing law and provided summer schools for the children of migrant laborers. As a Congressman, he responded to the widespread youthful unrest of the late ‘60s by gathering a group of other young Republican members of the House and visiting college campuses, without fanfare, to talk with discontented undergraduates. At a time when many Republicans were boosting themselves with Senator Claghorn-style threats to cut off federal aid to colleges in response to student protests, Steiger was writing to the Nixon administration that “Much as we might be appalled by the methods of the radicals, the point remains that many of their criticisms are valid. All is not well with the educational system or with the nation, and a policy, however well-intended, which suppressed the expression of that criticism or ignored it could only have a detrimental impact upon the future of the nation.”

Steiger felt that Americans were better served by the Republicans’ emphasis on free enterprise and small, effective government than by the Democrats’ emphasis on welfarism and expanding bureaucracy. However, he also lived by Abraham Lincoln’s admonition that government was needed to accomplish the “desirable things which the individuals of a people cannot do, or cannot well do, for themselves.” Steiger sponsored the 1970 legislation that created the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), though this was bitterly resented by many conservatives, because he believed that business and industry had failed to protect their workers; by the early ‘70s, some 14,000 Americans were killed annually in on-the-job accidents, another 400,000 succumbed to work-incurred illnesses, and over 2 million were injured. He insisted that OSHA was not created to harass employers but to save them money by ending the carnage.

Steiger’s belief that Republicans had a special obligation to ordinary Americans was the basis for the Congressional tax revolt he led against President Jimmy Carter. By the late ‘70s, the prosperity of the broad middle class was eroded by inflation, unemployment, rising Social Security payroll taxes and property taxes, tax bracket creep, and a stagnant stock market. Democratic tax relief programs had tended to benefit the very poor or special groups (such as the elderly), while only the rich could take advantage of tax loopholes. The Steiger Amendment of 1978 proposed to cut the capital gains tax in half, thereby encouraging widespread stock ownership, unfreezing capital for investment, and facilitating the growth of new companies and the jobs they would produce. (Steiger had been shocked when one California entrepreneur testified that he could find venture capital only in Japan.)  Tax reform was an idea that appealed to millions of Americans who sensed that something was amiss with the nation’s economic and tax policies. Somewhat to Steiger’s surprise, he managed to gain enough Democratic support for his proposal that Carter was forced to sign off on a reduction of the capital gains tax rate from 49 to 28 percent.

The passage of the Steiger Amendment, according to former Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley, marked the moment when “a decade of envy came to its close, and the search for a growth formula started in earnest.” Supply-side economists credited the amendment with launching a venture capital boom that launched companies like Apple, Sun Microsystems, and FedEx. Steiger died before he could see his bill enacted and its results come to fruition. His last writings and interviews suggested that he would have attempted to account for how much of the increase in business startups could be attributed to the tax cut and how much to other factors, and would have tried to ensure that as much of the benefits as possible accrued to the middle class, particularly to minority-owned businesses.

Steiger’s sudden decease was widely mourned, not just on account of his youth but also because his career seemed to promise that politics could be improved. He was a solid party man, but worked to restructure the Republican convention delegate selection procedures to make the GOP more open, particularly to women and minorities and young people. He was skeptical of liberals’ grandiose claims for government, but never pretended that government was unnecessary, and he fought hard to get Republicans to modernize government at all levels and to enlist the brainpower of the academic community. He brought a certain youthful exuberance to even the unglamorous, everyday operations of public service, and his willingness to work with Democrats allowed him to amass a significant record of achievement. As the Washington Post editorialized, “His death was untimely, a blow to his party and a loss to civility and seriousness of purpose in the House.”

The Republicans also may have lost Steiger’s intangible but real moderating influence on many people who eventually would play a leading role in the party, such as George H. W. Bush, who was the godfather of Steiger’s only child (William R. Steiger, who served in the administration of George W. Bush). Dick Cheney was also a protégé of Steiger, and worked for the Congressman while a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin.  Cheney accompanied Steiger to meetings with student radicals and black power activists in 1969, and seemed to share his mentor’s tolerant, common-sense approach to the problems of that era. Steiger prevailed on his friend Donald Rumsfeld to hire Cheney into the Nixon administration, and gave financial backing to Cheney’s 1978 election to the House of Representatives. It is unlikely that Cheney would have pursued such an obdurately conservative course in the House and afterward if Steiger had still been alive. While the members of the George W. Bush administration are notoriously impervious to criticism, they might flinch at the charge that they did not live up to Bill Steiger’s vision of what the Republican Party could be at its best.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Ouroboros

    No matter how much good Steiger may have been responsible for, he’s also responsible for the rise of Cheney? Gonna have to find a better example of a sane Republican…