By Bob Barney
In 1982, while facing budget shortfalls, high unemployment and interest rates through the roof, American poor and working people had a friend in Washington that like Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," stood out against his President, his party and the media! He refused to bend to the pressure (something that today's Democratic Senators have never learned) and stood like an old oak tree: His name: Jesse Helms.... Here are excerpts from:
Palace Coup: President Ronald Reagan and the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982
The Federal Hwy Dept Records
As the bill moved to the Senate, new problems arose. Aside from the
issues that had threatened the bill in the House, some Senators wanted
to add a public works jobs bill to the measure, despite presidential
opposition, while others wanted to replace the gas tax hike with
increased income taxes on the well-to-do. The Senate also faced the
threat of a filibuster from conservatives led by Senator Gordon J.
Humphrey (R-NH) with support from Senators Don Nickles (R-Ok.), Jesse
Helms (R-NC), and John East (R-NC). Humphrey, a first term Senator who
would vote against every budget during his two terms (1979-1990)
because they included deficits, said of the House action, "Last night
the lame-duck Congress laid its first rotten egg." He called the bill
"New Deal nonsense" and "Keynesian claptrap." He also accused Congress
of panicking and succumbing to the temptation to "do something even if
it's the wrong thing."
After the Senate Finance Committee and the Committee on Environment and
Public Works approved their portions of the bill, debate began on the
Senate floor on December 10. Senator Humphrey launched his filibuster. Under Senate rules, a filibuster can be ended by a "cloture" vote of 60
Senators. Cloture was achieved on December 13 by a vote of 75 to 13.
Technically, the vote limited debate on a parliamentary motion relating
to the bill. A filibuster on the bill itself, according to opponents,
was likely. On December 14, the Senate resumed debate on the bill on a
round-the-clock basis, in hope of adjourning on Friday, December 17.
However, the four conservatives opened a new filibuster. They had added
leverage because their actions were delaying approval of a must-pass
omnibus stopgap bill containing 6 of the 13 regular appropriations
bills funding eight Cabinet Departments, the others having been
approved earlier. Unless the omnibus bill was approved, the President
had threatened to shut down a large part of the government and furlough
about 350,000 employees when spending authority expired after midnight
According to The New York Times, Republican leaders in the
Senate were enraged and frustrated by the success of the four
conservatives in blocking a bill that the President, the House, and the
overwhelming number of Senators supported. When the 54 Republicans met
to "discuss strategy and berate the filibusterers in voices loud enough
to be heard in an adjacent corridor," one lawmaker could be heard
asking, "Are the egos in this place bigger than the institution of the
U.S. Senate?" The article quoted Senator William S. Cohen (R-Me.) as
I have never seen the kind of anger that is being
expressed behind closed doors. People are perceived as having abused
the procedures and failing to support the leadership. Normally, there
is great deference around here toward people who seek to use the rules,
but today tempers are very short. [Tolchin, Martin, "How to Stall Gas
Tax Rise," The New York Times, December 18, 1982]
In pulling the bill, Republican leaders had said unanimous consent
would be required to bring the measure back to the floor—an unlikely
occurrence given the continued opposition of the four conservatives. On
December 18, reported The New York Times, the leaders
indicated they "had discovered the bill would return automatically for
floor consideration." In addition, "there were parliamentary devices
that could expedite the matter." Nevertheless, "the fate of the bill
was in the hands of those conducting the filibuster because members of
Congress are eager to adjourn for a Christmas vacation and a new
Congress will convene in two weeks." [Tolchin, Martin, "Gasoline Tax
Measure May Die, Leaders Concede," The New York Times, December 19,
On December 19, the Senate voted to end the filibuster of the surface
transportation bill, 89 to 5, with the lopsided margin reflecting
widespread frustration over the delay. Secretary Lewis, watching from
the VIP gallery, gave a double thumbs-up signal when the vote reached
60. (The fifth vote against cloture was cast by Senator William
Proxmire (D-Wi.), who opposed the surface transportation bill.)
Columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak illustrated the ill feelings
by reporting on an incident that occurred in the Senate Republican
cloakroom during East's filibuster and Jesse Helms, for one, was not intimidated: "Sen. Jesse Helms took the floor in a caucus, asking Baker how it was
that he used such pressure to shut down conservative filibusters
against higher taxes but not liberal filibusters against Helms's school
prayer and anti-abortion measures." [Evans, Rowland, and Novak, Robert,
"Season of Ill Will for Senate Republicans," The Washington Post, December 22, 1982]
The House approved the revised bill on December 21 by a vote of 180
to 87, with many Representatives having departed for the holiday.
Following the vote, the House adjourned for the year.
When the bill reached the Senate, Senators Helms and East began
another filibuster. The increasingly bitter session reached a turning
point shortly before midnight on December 21 when Helms vowed to keep
the Senate in session over Christmas if necessary. In response, the
Democrats, all angry, some opposed to the bill, held a caucus in which
they agreed to stay for one final vote to end the filibuster. Senator
Byrd said, "We ought to have a showdown or we ought to go home."
Seeing that the Democrats would stay for one last try, Senator Baker
said, "That allowed us to show Sen. Helms we would take him to the nth
degree, just as he had done to us." Baker filed a cloture petition.
Senator Baker gave President Reagan a list of Senators to call, not
including Helms, to lobby for the bill. The President had called
Senator Helms the previous week without success, as Helms recalled:
I reminded the president that he once said it would take
a palace coup for him to support a tax bill like this. "Mr. President,"
I said, "when did the palace coup occur?" Then I went down the
provisions in the bill with him. "Do you like this?" I asked. And he
said, "No." Do you like that?" I asked. And he said, "No."
He was not apologetic about delaying the Senators' Christmas holiday:
I really should not be the one making the apologies. The
president should apologize, the people who pushed this measure on us
during a lame-duck session should make the apologies . . . . This is a
bad bill coming at a bad time." [Maraniss, David, "Sen. Helms: An
Outcast in Senate," The Washington Post, December 23, 1982]
The Washington Post explained the extraordinary steps taken by Republican leaders to secure a vote:
President Reagan telephoned senators yesterday [December
22], offering Air Force transportation to some in an effort to keep
them here long enough to win approval of his nickel-a-gallon gasoline
tax increase, while the heavy-truck lobby fought to kill the package
because of the high fees it would impose on 18-wheelers . . . .
[Senator] Baker's office, the White House and the Department of
Transportation were checking yesterday to see which senators have not
left Washington and to make sure they will get votes considered "soft."
. . . The question facing the Senate "has become much larger than
the gasoline tax," an administration official said in referring to
Helms' filibuster. "It goes to the ability of the leadership to control
the Senate and of the administration to pass legislation."
That realization, the source said, led to a substantially increased
White House effort on behalf of the bill after Transportation Secretary
Drew Lewis had carried much of the load in the early days of the
lame-duck session before the measure passed the House.
Baker went to the White House yesterday with other congressional
leaders and staff members to give Reagan a list of senators to be
called by Reagan. "We're not going through a charade," a Baker aide
said. "It will be a close vote, and there are enough uncertainties
floating around out there to compel us to take it seriously."
The article also described efforts by the trucking interests to block the bill:
Bennett C. Whitlock, Jr., president of the American
Trucking Associations, spent the day in meetings on strategy, counting
votes and making phone calls. "We've talked to quite a few senators,"
he said. "We're asking them to vote against the conference report and
to start over again in the next session of Congress in establishing new
In a news release, Whitlock said the trucking industry "is appalled"
at the increases in fees under the bill. The ATA figures that a typical
18-wheeler will pay an increase in total highway taxes on fuel, use and
tires of $2,203 in the second year. [Feaver, Douglas B., and Maraniss,
David, "Reagan Lobbies for Senate Votes on Gasoline Tax, The Washington Post, December 23, 1982]
The following day, December 23, the vote on cloture was
overwhelming, 81 to 5. Senators Helms, East, and Nickles were joined by
Senators Proxmire and James Exon (D-Ne.) in voting to continue the
filibuster. Senator Humphrey, a member of the Armed Services Committee,
was on a troop-inspection tour of South Korea and could not return for
Five Senators had been flown back to Washington on government planes
for the vote. One of them, Senator Goldwater, had been recovering at
home during the lame-duck session from triple-bypass surgery. Voting to
end the filibuster, he said, "When you know you're whipped, you should
quit." The airlift prompted Senator Helms to say, "The sky was dark
with Air Force planes. Nobody knows what that will cost. It's another
case where the poor taxpayer is required to finance his own misery."
In the final moments, many Senators had unkind words for Senator
Helms. Senator Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.) said that the tactics employed
by the two Senators from North Carolina had placed all future bills
involving tobacco in "the greatest jeopardy." Senator Dennis DeConcini
(D-Az.) said the Senate had been "tyrannized and immobilized by a
handful of men." Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Ma.) said:
We are not debating war and peace, or a new world order,
or whether all people are created equal. We are talking about the width
and weight of trucks, the potholes in our country roads, and the
failing subways in our ailing cities. That is the poor stuff of which
this ridiculous debate is made, and we deserve all the ridicule we are
receiving, because all our wounds are self-inflicted . . . . We have
too easily permitted this historic chamber to become the laughing stock
of the nation.
Senator Helms replied to the liberal Senator, long a target of
conservatives, saying he appreciated Kennedy's words. "His statement
may have increased my popularity in North Carolina by 10 to 12 points."
Senator George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) delivered the final speech before
the cloture vote, quoting Oliver Cromwell's words to the British
Parliament in 1653:
You have sat too long for any good you have done.
Depart, I say, and let us be done with you. In the name of God—go!"
[Maraniss, David, "Senate Stops Debate, Votes Gas-Tax Bill," The Washington Post, December 24, 1982]
President Reagan met briefly with reporters after the Senate approved the bill, 54 to 33. United Press International reported:
Smiling and at ease, Reagan, who suffered some major
setbacks during the post-election season, said Congress "dealt with
some very difficult issues and put in some very long hours."
He declined to criticize the Senators who had delayed action on the
bill. "They have their own rules, they abide by them and I respect the
separation of powers," he said. Passage of the bill was "a credit to
leaders of both parties and congressmen and senators on both sides of
The President also indicated he was not frustrated by the lack of
change in the unemployment rate, voicing confidence that his policies
would lead to a broad recovery. "I am convinced that this coming year,
1983, is going to see a definite upturn." ["Reagan, Happy With Gas-Tax
Bill, Predicts Upturn," The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 24, 1982]
Writing in The Washington Times, Thomas D. Brandt described
the arc of the 1982 STAA. Although congressional committees had been
considering the legislation for nearly 2 years, it "came to life" in
the aftermath of the November 2 election "when the nation's 10.4
percent unemployment rate (now 10.8) was a major issue and most
candidates had pledged to go back to Washington to do something about
it." The bill, with its promise of 320,000 jobs and vitally needed road
improvements, "was never more popular than the day it was introduced."
In the end, Helms lost-- driving (NOT FLYING) back to his North Carolina home, he became so tired that he decided to stop at a Hardee's in South Hill Virginia. It was Christmas Eve and a trucker was shocked to notice Jesse Helms. He yelled out, "That's Jesse Helms," in astonishment. Helms was shocked when the entire crowd of travelers, most truckers who would have been hurt very badly by the tax, stood up and gave him a standing ovations! Regular Americans had a friend, and Jesse Helms was his name!
"It's the first time," Helms would later say, "that I got a standing ovation----------------- at Hardee's!"
Could we use some patriots like this today!