WHENEVER the powerful House Ways and Means Committee got in a battle over tax issues, negotiations often started in Rep. Charles Rangel's office.
It is likely there will be even more such wranglings in Mr. Rangel's quarters as this key congressional committee debates health-care reform bills.
With Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois no longer chairman of the committee due to a 17-count indictment, Mr. Rangel (D) of New York has effectively become the second ranking Democrat on the committee. (The panel's official No. 2, Rep. J.J. Pickle (D) of Texas, is retiring.) And, since acting chairman Rep. Sam Gibbons (D) of Florida, is viewed as lacking in negotiating skills, Rangel's services could be in even more demand.
``Charlie becomes the heir apparent, so people will have to pay more attention to him,'' says former Rep. Bill Frenzel, who was the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee for many years. What they will find, says New York's Gov. Mario Cuomo in an interview, is ``a progressive pragmatist,'' someone ``who must keep an eye on the future but is sufficiently subtle and practical to make the difficult, sometimes mean decisions, to get there.'' Governor Cuomo says Rangel is ``politically what I would like to be at my best.''
Helping the home town
It is not surprising that Cuomo has good things to say about Rangel. The congressman has helped to take care of New York.
``He's been an extremely successful advocate for New York City,'' says Brad Johnson, who used to be a lobbyist for the city and now is a partner with the Washington law firm of Hawkins, Delafield & Wood.
Rangel, the fifth ranking black congressman, fought to maintain the deductibility of state and local taxes on United States taxes during debate over the 1986 Tax Reform Act. It is one of Cuomo's favorite political battle stories.
``It started with Ronald Reagan announcing [then Treasury Secretary] Jim Baker's plan in a televised appearance. President Reagan said specifically that the plan will get high tax and spending states like New York. So, it was a plan designed by Republicans to run against New York.''
Rangel immediately understood the implications for New York. He recruited labor leaders, teachers, and other Democrats to oppose that part of the plan. Congress went along with his proposal, although it did eliminate the deductibility of sales taxes. As a result of the battle, Cuomo calls Rangel ``a hero.''
It is a label that fits Rangel in the traditional way as well. During the Korean war, Rangel won a Bronze Star after being wounded leading 40 men out from behind Chinese lines. The Army experience, Rangel has said, was a turning point in his life since it showed him an alternative to the poverty he grew up with as a poor black in Harlem.
Rangel returned to New York and completed his education, obtaining a law degree from St. Johns University. In 1970, he challenged and defeated the incumbent, Adam Clayton Powell, in the Democratic primary.
Ever since his appointment to the Ways and Means committee in 1975, Rangel - the first black on the committee - has tried to help decaying urban areas. He has won tax breaks for low and moderate housing. Several mortgage bond revenue programs owe their existence to Rangel.
``At the end of every tax conference there is a line of people there to thank Charlie for his work,'' Mr. Johnson says. One of Rangel's latest efforts is the Empowerment Zones, also known as Enterprise Zones. The government will give $100 million grants to each of six urban areas and three rural grants of $40 million each. There are additional smaller urban and rural grants. The whole package has a value of $3.5 billion.
New York City has applied for one of the $100 million grants for an area that includes Rangel's district. Henry Cisneros, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, will pick the winners in the early fall.
``It is unthinkable that New York will not get one,'' Frenzel says.
On health care reform, Rangel is supporting New York's contention that the Medicaid formula should be revised to provide more money for the state. ``We are generous in the services we provide to those in need and changing the Medicaid formula has been a priority for the delegation,'' says Alice Tetelman, a Washington lobbyist for the city.
It is also not clear yet where Rangel stands on tobacco taxes, which are expected to rise to pay for health care reform. Rangel has received substantial tobacco company contributions and has bristled at increasing the cost of cigarettes for poor people.
Rangel is also a recipient of a lot of political action committee money. As of Oct. 30 of last year, Rangel had received $164,380 from health or insurance PACs. By the end of last year, the Political Finance & Lobby Reporter reports that Rangel has raised $294,299 toward his campaign.
Rangel may need the money to help beat back a primary challenge from city council member Adam Clayton Powell IV, who is considering a run for his father's old seat. If he wins reelection, Rangel could be in line to run Ways and Means next year.
If that happens, Frenzel says, ``you can change the name from the Big Apple to Lard City.''