The Hawkeye on the Hill
The nation's capital is a place where political cliches are periodically reinvented. So perhaps it's not a surprise that a straight-talking, tightfisted, onetime pig farmer from north-central Iowa has become one of the most powerful men in Congress.
With Chuck Grassley, an independent-minded Iowa Republican, there is no swagger, no glitz, no hype. There are no cowboy boots, no power ties. And yet Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is the man to see. As much as anyone, he determined the shape of the $350 billion tax cut that President Bush signed into law last month. And now he is shepherding the most important structural changes in the 38-year history of the massive Medicare program--changes that will be debated this week in the Senate. But if Grassley's newfound muscle is impressing the power brokers, it doesn't seem to be fazing him. "You take it one day at a time," says the 69-year-old senator from New Hartford, Iowa, "and you pray."
Prayer may help, but the skills Grassley displayed last week as the Medicare package moved through the Finance Committee were far more earthly: a deliberate pace and an ability to reach across the aisle to build consensus with folks like Max Baucus of Montana, the Finance Committee's ranking Democrat. After all, the $400 billion Medicare package Grassley is tackling represents fundamental reform of a political sacred cow that has been beyond the reach of good intentions for years.
But the momentum is with him. "We are here to deliver," Grassley said last week. The legislation passed by the committee would offer a new benefit to help Medicare recipients purchase prescription drugs, either through the traditional Medicare program or through private health plans. The Finance Committee measure would require a Medicare patient to pay a $35 monthly premium and a deductible of $275 a year. Then the government would pay half of the patient's prescription drug costs until they reached $4,500 a year; the patient would pay the other half. Additional coverage would kick in when the patient's out-of-pocket costs reached $3,700. A similar bill in the House includes more incentives for Medicare recipients to join private plans. There's still some battling to do, but Grassley believes that Bush will have a bill he can sign on his desk by September.
And that would be a landmark achievement for Grassley, who has defied low expectations his entire political life. After he was elected to the Senate in 1980, a Washington magazine described him as one of the least intelligent members of the Senate. "I didn't think it was accurate," says Grassley. "It hurt."
But he didn't whine; he just went to work, spending time on the kinds of gritty oversight that many politicians shun. It was Grassley who brought America's attention to the Pentagon's curious penchant for $640 toilet seats. Cost overruns in government contracting drive him batty. "You know why a B-1 bomber cost a billion dollars each?" he asks. "Because it is a bunch of overpriced spare parts flying in unison." Grassley's proposal to freeze federal spending--including the Pentagon's budget--helped end the Reagan administration's buildups in defense spending.