Senator's Reform Efforts Sometimes Get Results
By Helen Dewar and Eric Pianin, Washington Post,
Wednesday, August 9, 2000 ; A01
When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) opened his recent drive to force
secretive political groups to start disclosing their finances, it
sounded familiar to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). There was a
good reason: It started out as Lieberman's bill.
But there appeared to be no hard feelings. Lieberman co-sponsored
McCain's measure, McCain gave Lieberman credit for the idea and,
together, they steered the proposal--the first successful campaign
reform initiative in two decades--through all the legislative traps
and onto the statute books.
Temperamentally, Lieberman, the mild-mannered centrist and
consensus-seeker who was formally tapped by Vice President Gore
yesterday to be his running mate, could not be more different from the
fist-pumping crusader who tried and failed to win the GOP presidential
But Lieberman shares with McCain an interest in reform that transcends
their mutual support for tightening campaign finance laws, with
Lieberman having demonstrated an especially keen interest in tackling
education programs. In the process, both have taken on some of their
own party's major constituencies and special interests, which for
Lieberman include teachers unions, trial lawyers and the entertainment
Lieberman has carved out a distinct role for himself in the Senate. He
has no major laws named after him and has often been thwarted by
partisan pressures and by overreaching for a consensus that has yet to
develop. Instead, he has become a force of his own, taking on the role
of conscience of the Senate, with a passionate interest in issues
involving morals and cultural values.
But he may be less of a maverick than he sometimes appears. Despite
his call for overhauling campaign finances, he's been an aggressive
participant in the current system. According to the Center for
Responsive Politics, he has collected $3.4 million for his reelection
campaign and leads the Senate in contributions from insurance
interests--not surprising, given the concentration of such companies
in his home state.
Lieberman also has adhered to Democratic orthodoxy on most key issues,
including abortion, gun control, environmental protection, gay rights
and raising the minimum wage. He once indicated interest in partial
privatization of Social Security--a major item in George W. Bush's
agenda--but has since decided it would not work, aides said.
When he has dissented, it has invariably been to take a position to
the right of his party. He has voted with Republicans on issues
ranging from cutting capital gains taxes, which many Democrats deride
as a sop to the rich, to supporting limits on damages in civil
liability lawsuits, which are the lifeblood of many Democratic-leaning
Congressional Quarterly, an independent publication, found he voted
with his party 87 percent of the time last year on issues that
involved partisan divisions. He voted with President Clinton 89
percent of the time.
With his even-tempered and affable manner, Lieberman is widely liked
on both sides of the aisle, and few are willing to challenge him
directly on issues involving morality and cultural values. But many
have also found him easy to ignore, especially when, as some have said
privately, he gets a little sanctimonious or politically self-serving.
"The main thing is he works well with everyone--not only the
traditional Democratic base but with Republicans as well," said
Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), another centrist who has often worked with
Lieberman on issues such as health care and education.
Democratic liberals also speak well of him. "We don't always agree
on issues but I believe in him," said Sen. Paul D. Wellstone
(D-Minn.), one of the most liberal members of the Senate.
One of the areas in which Lieberman has challenged his party--and has
yet to see his ideas written into law--is education. He was an early
advocate of charter schools and vouchers, arguing almost a decade ago
that parents and students should be given more choice and alternatives
to public schools. He joined forces with the late Sen. Paul Coverdell
(R-Ga.) and other Republicans to back a measure to offer parents a
tax-sheltered savings account to help defray school costs, in public
and private schools.
This year he and a handful of other centrist Democrats pressed for a
major restructuring of the federal education law that incorporated his
"Three Rs"--dramatically consolidating education programs,
boosting funding especially for the poorest school districts and
holding educators and administrators accountable for results. Many of
his ideas have been drawn from or refined by the Democratic Leadership
Council, a centrist think tank he now chairs.
He has strongly supported Clinton-Gore administration initiatives for
hiring 100,000 additional teachers nationally and building new
schools. But since early in his Senate career, Lieberman has locked
horns with the National Education Association and other teachers
groups by promoting vouchers and other proposals that they argue would
divert resources from public schools.
Lieberman showed a pragmatic side this year in negotiating with his
party over education policy. To avoid confrontation with liberals,
Lieberman dropped his insistence on vouchers.
In return, Democrats included parts of Lieberman's "Three Rs"
reforms in their alternative, including a system that pegs program
funding to school system performance standards and a commitment to try
to better target Title I funding for the disadvantaged.
But liberal Democrats rejected other pieces of the Lieberman plan,
particularly proposals for earmarking 75 percent of Title I funds for
the poorest school districts and for consolidating dozens of programs
into five performance-based programs. Only 13 of the 45 Senate
Democrats supported all of Lieberman's proposals in an amendment
during the floor debate.
Another example of Lieberman's ability to make waves was his crusade,
with conservative Republicans, against violence and sex on television
and in lyrics and video games.
While Clinton has wooed Hollywood for years, Lieberman has championed
legislation that has riled Hollywood's elite, including the 1996 law
requiring that television sets include the V-chip technology that lets
parents filter what their children watch. He also supports a proposal
that would require the industry to adopt a uniform rating system for
films, music recordings and video games.
"I have certainly taken issue with some of the things he has
said," said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture
Association of America. "But in the world of politics
. . . there's room for disagreement. And you can debate with a man
like Joe Lieberman because he doesn't have a hidden agenda. He doesn't
come at you with the mask of Machiavelli."
On foreign policy, Lieberman was one of only 10 Democrats to support
military action against Iraq in the Persian Gulf War and advocated
stronger action than the administration was willing to take against
Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo.
He has been a stronger supporter of free trade than many in his
party. He has also pushed, in opposition to many Democrats, for speedy
action to create a national missile defense system, although he voted
with them recently to require more tests before the go-ahead is given.
He has supported civil rights, gay rights and hate-crimes legislation,
but has been critical of granting hiring and other preferences to
minority groups. He voted for legislation to overhaul the welfare
system, which passed over opposition from some party liberals.
Lieberman has generally lined up with fiscal conservatives in his
party and defied his party leadership to support a capital gains tax
cut in 1989. But he opposed the balanced-budget constitutional
amendment and voted against the big Republican tax cut last
year. Although some Democratic moderates voted recently for GOP bills
to reduce taxes for married couples and eliminate the federal tax on
estates, Lieberman did not do so.
It says something about Lieberman's nearly 12 years on Capitol Hill
that he is probably less known for his legislative work than for the
speech he gave in late 1998 rebuking Clinton for his affair with
former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. While it was seen at the
time as provocative, many Democrats now say it may have put out a fire
before it started.
It expressed most senators' disgust with Clinton's behavior, they say,
and enabled them to turn their attention to legal and constitutional
questions, which were eventually--with Lieberman's support--decided in
Clinton's favor. "He articulated for many in the [Democratic]
caucus the feelings that many had but were not prepared to express
publicly," said Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). After
the speech, the emotion "dissipated," Daschle added.
Staff researcher Lynn Davis contributed to this report.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company