WASHINGTON — On one Friday in November, when White House and congressional negotiators were deep in their deliberations over reducing the federal budget deficit, the conversation turned to eliminating the 1988 cost-of-living increase in Social Security benefits.
Enter 87-year-old Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.). Over the weekend, in a videotape that he recorded at his Miami apartment, he thundered about the financial threat to destitute widows and warned House members of the political risks of voting to cut Social Security benefits. Alarmed groups representing the elderly showed the tape at a hastily arranged press conference on the following Monday.
And, just like that, Social Security disappeared from the budget-cutters' agenda.
"As soon as Claude Pepper appeared on television, people ran; that's real power," said an admiring Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), who ranks third in the House Democratic leadership.
To a degree that is rare for any member of Congress, Claude Denson Pepper combines symbolism--his stature as the oldest member of Congress--with the political clout of an accomplished legislator.
Although he represents only a chunk of Miami and Dade County, millions of elderly Americans regard him as their congressman. He gets about 100 letters a day from all over the country, even more when Medicare or Social Security makes headlines.
His walk is a slow shuffle, his glasses are as thick as bottle bottoms and his hearing aids do not quite do the trick. But, without a single page of notes, he can make a gripping 20-minute speech replete with anecdotes, Biblical quotations and a joke or two about the Baptist preacher whose sermons ran so long that the congregation left to get a haircut.
But age alone would make Pepper nothing more than an antediluvian novelty, a man with a personally inscribed picture from Franklin D. Roosevelt on his office mantel. To the symbolism, Pepper adds the power that comes from being chairman of the House Rules Committee, the House's legislative traffic cop.
Sets Terms of Debate
For every bill that goes before the full House, the Rules Committee sets the terms of debate--the number of hours of argument and the quantity and types of amendments that may be offered. As chairman, Pepper can bottle up legislation he considers obnoxious, and he can attach his pet causes to virtually any bill.
"A lot of people in this town are scared of his power; they've got to work in his shadow," said a health industry lobbyist who watched Pepper scuttle a plan to raise the Medicare deductible to $85 from $75 in the recent marathon closing session of Congress.
Adding to Pepper's influence is his work as a powerful campaigner for Democratic candidates, many of whom are now in his debt. In 1982, when the Democratic Party picked up 26 additional House seats, "he was our most potent weapon, more responsible than any other individual in our party," Coelho said. "In 1984, he protected Democrats when the issue was very tough, and in 1986 all the Senate winners used him."
It was in 1986 that the Democrats wrested the Senate from the Republicans as nine seats shifted to Democratic control, and Social Security Commissioner Dorcas R. Hardy said Democrats won at least four of those seats by attacking Republican incumbents on the Social Security issue. Pepper, she said, choosing her words carefully, is "very influential."
Politically, Pepper is an unapologetic exponent of big government, a liberal in a period when Ronald Reagan made the term faintly distasteful in Washington.
"I was a New Dealer before there was a New Deal," he wrote in his recently published autobiography. "I remained one when the ideology behind it came under bitter attack. I remain one today."
In this era of budget austerity, Pepper is promoting a big new government program: care at home for the frail and sick of all ages. At present, Medicare pays only for strictly medical services for Americans 65 and older and the disabled of all ages. Pepper's plan would extend Medicare to pay for housekeepers or aides who provide more menial--but, in Pepper's view, no less important--services.
The cost would be a hefty $23 billion over five years, and Pepper and the co-author of the measure, Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles), want to raise the money by applying the Medicare tax, 1.45% of income, to all earnings, not just the first $45,000 a year. That would mean higher taxes for the 8% of American workers who will make more than that figure this year.
This proposed tax hike makes even many of Pepper's fellow Democrats nervous, a fact that Pepper treats with scorn.
'The Needs Are There'
"They don't want to spend that much money," he said. "People every day are suffering these privations; if there were some way to suspend their agony, I would be very glad to wait. But I don't know any way to do that. The needs are there."