Eye for detail, taste for reform

The Baltimore Sun

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.

"I observed them negotiating - there was a trust and a mutual respect between two heavy hitters representing different parties," Pomeroy said. "Watching those two develop their legislation was as good as it gets, in my experience."

The first so-called Portman-Cardin reform was the 1996 Small Business Job Protection Act, a proposal that gave incentives to companies that matched the money workers set aside in retirement plans. Clinton signed the bill.

The 1998 IRS proposal signed by Clinton included a spelling-out of taxpayer rights and placed the burden of proof on the government if questions arise about an individual's filing. It also called for the modernization of the bureau's computer systems.

Cardin recalls that the political climate then was unfriendly to IRS reform. Neither party wanted the other credited with major change.

With Kerrey and other lawmakers, Portman had participated in a yearlong commission that reviewed problems dogging the IRS. But the bill stalled in the House. Cardin recalled that Portman enlisted his help:

"Rob and I were friends. He said, 'Look, I put a lot of time into it, it's the right thing to do.'"

Each worked his respective party caucus and promoted the bill to House leadership. Cardin said Clinton's Treasury secretary, Robert E. Rubin, was skeptical, worried that the matter would get mired in partisan squabbles. Kerrey recalled that Rubin initially urged Clinton not to support the bill.

"It was sort of a three-ball pool shot," Kerrey said. "Cardin and Portman to Gingrich and Gephardt to Clinton. Once that was done, it was going to get passed."

Ultimately, the proposal extended refund periods and cut penalties for individuals paying on installment plans.

With two notches on their belts, Portman and Cardin got busy with what would be their crowning achievement - a pension reform proposal that would allow workers to save more for their retirement as well as giving older Americans the opportunity to "catch up" on their savings. It would take three years to get the bill through Congress and to the president's desk - and by that time George Bush had taken office.

The bill raised contribution limits to individual retirement accounts - IRAs - from $2,000 to $5,000, over six years. It also permitted workers over 50 to make additional contributions annually to eligible accounts. These "catch-up" contributions were designed to help people who had been out of the work force for any length of time, especially women who might have left their jobs to raise a family.

"That's huge, it's actually a huge amount of savings in this country," said Lyn Dudley, vice president of retirement policy for the American Benefits Council.

Savers and retirees aren't the only ones who benefited from the policy changes. With more money going into individual accounts, brokerage firms and other financial services institutions got to manage billions more in investments - and to collect the resulting fees.

Special interests

The Republicans' chief criticism of Cardin as he campaigns for the Senate is that he is beholden to special interests. A recent Steele ad says Cardin took $89,000 from drug companies and $563,267 from insurance interests during his congressional career.

"For someone who likes to talk about taking on special interests, Ben Cardin has received a lot of love from them," said Dan Ronayne, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "Despite representing only one of Maryland's eight congressional districts, Cardin has managed to collect more special interest money than Maryland's two sitting senators. Cardin is the consummate D.C. establishment guy."

Of the $10.7 million Cardin has raised since 1989, about $2 million came from political action committees or individuals affiliated with the insurance, finance or real estate industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group. Experts say that's not a surprising take for someone with a seat on the Ways and Means Committee, which is in charge of tax policy.

Overall, 35 percent of Cardin's money has come from PACs and 57 percent is from individual donors.

Cardin's PAC donations are not out of line for a longtime congressman, said Massie Ritsch, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics.

Ritsch said that an evaluation of PAC donations to House members over the past term shows Cardin ranks 414th out of 432 sitting members in terms of percentage of donations from political action committees. (There are three vacant House seats, one each in Florida, New Jersey and Texas.)

Critics have said the 2001 Portman-Cardin pension proposal did not go far enough to help low-income workers.

It did provide a modest tax credit, however, for low-income savers. A percentage of the first $2,000 an individual sets aside would be matched by the federal government. Those making less that $15,000 annually, for example, would receive a $1,000 credit.

"To get the Republicans to agree to do any tax credit for lower-income workers is a pretty extraordinary accomplishment," Graff said.

Yet, after all the heavy lifting it took to get the bill through Congress, Cardin did not vote for the final proposal, which was folded into the 2001 Bush tax cut. During his Senate bid, Cardin has railed against the president's tax cuts, saying they provide undue breaks to the wealthiest Americans at a time of soaring federal deficits.

"I feel very strongly about it being a fiscally responsible package," Cardin said. "Just because it has my bill in it doesn't mean I'm going to vote for it."

With two weeks until the Nov. 7 election, Portman declined to be interviewed for this article. He spoke with The Sun in September for a profile about Cardin, saying then that Cardin is "good at getting things done" and understands complicated issues.

"The pension bills are a classic example of where he's made a difference in the lives of his constituents," Portman said.

Cardin's work on pensions has provided him with a very specialized niche in Washington.

But in classic Cardin substance over style, it has not given him an easy-to-sell issue on the campaign trail.

He says he doesn't care. By delving into the details, he says, he has been better able to do his job.

"I think it's gained me a great deal of respect on Capitol Hill," Cardin said, "which was the purpose."


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