As Congress heads toward Christmas, debating an increasingly unpopular bill that will raise federal spending and taxes, Senate leaders are beating up on anyone — like Joe Lieberman — who seems to threaten quick passage of the bill. Next week, when senators want to get home for Christmas, the pressure on recalcitrant members to give in and vote will become even stronger.
And so, kids, gather around for a Christmas story from the olden days. Back in the last century, in the year 1982, the Washington establishment decided that the gasoline tax should be raised by a nickel a gallon. Ronald Reagan, Tip O’Neill, Bob Michel, Howard Baker, Bob Dole, Dan Rostenkowski — they all wanted it. But Senators Jesse Helms, Don Nickles, and Gordon Humphrey stood in the way. They filibustered right up to the night of December 23. Finally the Senate worked its will, and the tax increase passed. Helms in particular was the subject of calumny from across the Washington establishment, politicians and media alike, both for opposing a much-needed tax increase and for cruelly delaying Christmas for the senators (while trying to preserve it for the taxpayers).
And how did the voters respond to “Senator No”? In a front-page article in the Washington Post of January 2, 1983, describing Helms’s drive home on December 23 after the grueling Senate debate, David Maraniss told the story:
Hours after his fortnight battle against the gasoline tax increase was over and lost, he was bone-tired and bleary-eyed as he drove down Interstate 95, and a few times during the five-hour trip his car lurched precariously toward the shoulder of the highway. Finally, when he reached the exit for South Hill, Va., he decided to pull over and make a pit stop at Hardee’s.
No sooner had the senior senator from North Carolina approached the counter of the fast-food establishment than a truck driver recognized his unforgettable mug. “Hey, there’s Jesse Helms,” said the trucker. Heads turned, mutters of awareness filled the room, and suddenly, spontaneously, some 15 or 20 fellow travelers were on their feet applauding.
“That,” Helms would say later, “was the first time I ever got a standing ovation at Hardee’s.” In fact, it was one of the few times he had received a warm reception anywhere during December.
He had left Washington with a few more nicknames attached to him by his enemies, and even some friends, who had been frustrated by his long, and in the end unsuccessful, attempt to talk the gasoline tax increase to death. “Scrooge,” they had called him, and the “Grinch Who Almost Stole Christmas.”
Where are the senators who will suffer the obloquy of the Washington establishment this Christmas to protect the taxpayers and earn a standing ovation outside the Beltway?