Dan Rostenkowski is on his way to keeping House Republicans from having any role whatever in shaping the forthcoming tax bill.
Almost unprecedented procedures that Chairman Rostenkowski, an Illinois Democrat, pushed through his Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday would turn the votes on the bill into a multiple choice test.
Republicans don't like any of the choices, which are:
(a) The original tax proposals put forth by President Bush, which include, among other features they find unattractive, tax increases affecting the securities and insurance industries.
(b) A stripped-down version of Bush's original plan, now urged by the president himself, which omits his proposed tax cut for families with children.
(c) A Democratic proposal, yet to be written in detail, which will without question include a tax cut for all but high-income individuals and families.
The Republicans would like a choice labeled:
(d) None of the above.
That would enable them to write their own bill that they would be comfortable voting for, politically and otherwise. But unless the Ways and Means action somehow comes unstuck _ conceivably, Rostenkowski indicated, if Speaker Tom Foley disapproves of what he has done _ they will not get it.
The bill the House Republicans would back if they had the chance would almost certainly contain some version of a middle-class tax cut, perhaps the president's proposal or perhaps a broader one, not restricted to families with dependent children. It also would omit some of the features of the president's original proposal that the affected businesses are already protesting.
The procedures adopted by Ways and Means, in an often disorderly meeting characterized by an unusual amount of shouting and many straight party-line votes, departs from long established congressional tradition, in several respects.
The first is that all members of a committee participate in the drafting of legislation, arguing it out, often reaching compromises on various provisions and taking votes on many specific items. In this instance, what will be sent to the full House as the committee's bill will be written by the Democratic members only, behind closed doors, over the next several days or more.
In the usual case, once legislation has been approved by the proper committee, it then goes to the floor of the House, where it is subject to amendment before the final vote on its passage.
However, because of the difficulties elected officials face in resisting the temptation to grant special tax breaks to numerous constituents, the House long ago adopted the procedure of permitting only a single amendment to a tax bill. That amendment, traditionally offered by the minority, usually includes a large number of provisions that differ from those in the committee's bill.
That is precisely what would not be permitted this time. The permissible substitutes will be only the two Bush proposals.
The ranking Republican on Ways and Means, Bill Archer of Texas, immediately charged that Rostenkowski's intent was "to present the president with a bill he will have to veto."
Other Republicans said later that what lay behind the Archer charge was a belief that the Democrats do not wish to see a tax bill enacted any time soon, because it might work to stimulate the economy and thereby help the president's re-election.
Archer asked that the Republicans be permitted to craft their own bill but was immediately shouted down by the committee's ranking Democrat, Sam Gibbons of Tampa, who said that step would "just start a bidding war." Gibbons was referring to a situation like the one that occurred in 1981 in which Democrats and Republicans would vie to outdo each other in the size and diversity of the tax cuts they could offer to various groups of voters.