By Bob Barney
Wouldn't it be nice if a Deomcrat in the Senate had the nerve of Jesse Helms? 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
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 on Friday.
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 saying:
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, 1982]
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 truck-use fees.
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 the vote.
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 aisle."
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!