WASHINGTON — Politicians as a group tend to be despised by the public, and even in the political world, those who have entered from the ranks of academia are often snubbed. When Paul Douglas, a University of Chicago economist, came to the Senate in 1949, Sen. Bob Kerr of Oklahoma, a burly oil tycoon with whom Douglas battled on tax issues, would often address him as "Professor." To Kerr, and presumably many of his colleagues, anyone who had spent time behind ivy-covered walls was suspect.
Last week, as Congress returned, two such suspicious characters announced retirement plans on the same day. One, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, is well-known; the other, Rep. Steve Horn of California, less so. But together, these two Republicans demonstrate the variety of ways in which a leavening of the professoriate is of great value in a Congress dominated by lawyers.
Horn, 70, is unique. A one-time staff member of former Sen. Tom Kuchel of California, he is a reminder of the great and now almost vanished tradition of progressive Republicanism that once was the hallmark of Earl Warren’s home state. As a staffer, Horn helped write the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and he served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission for years.
A political scientist who wrote books about Congress, he was the retired president of Cal State-Long Beach and in his 60s when it occurred to him to run for a House seat. Elected on his second try in 1992, he quickly carved out a niche for himself that few younger or more ambitious politicians would have chosen: monitoring the performance of executive branch agencies.
As chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations, he held frequent hearings on such arcane but vital matters as the way in which the government purchases supplies and equipment and polices its contractors. The media "discovered" Horn when he started handing out letter grades to government agencies on how well they were preparing for the Y2K challenge to their computer systems. That the big changeover occurred without mishap on Jan. 1, 2000, is attributable at least in part to the pressure Horn exerted.
For the most part, however, his contributions to the workings of government paid no political dividends back home. And last week, when the Democratic redistricting plan dismembered his home base, he announced his retirement as quietly as he had served.
By contrast, Phil Gramm wanted to — and did — make waves. Elected in 1978 as a Democrat while serving on the economics faculty at Texas A&M, Gramm was barely into his second term when he jumped ship to become the leading Democratic co-sponsor of Ronald Reagan’s first historic budget. I wrote very critically about Gramm’s apostasy at the time, but his later actions forced me to change my view of him.
When Democrats bounced him off the Budget Committee at the beginning of the next Congress to punish him for his defection, Gramm did the honorable thing: He resigned his seat, went home and ran as a Republican in a special election, thus letting his constituents judge his actions.
The dramatic gesture helped him win a Senate seat in 1984, and since then, the 59-year-old Texan has been at the center of every major economic and domestic policy battle. Even those who have disagreed with many of his stands, as I have, would confirm that Gramm has fought aboveboard and on principle, refusing to trim his sails even to placate his own party’s leadership.
In 1993, when many Senate Republicans were looking for ways to pass a watered-down version of the Clinton health care plan, Gramm almost single-handedly set out to convince them that the scheme was fundamentally flawed and should be rejected. In 1997, when both the Clinton White House and congressional Republicans were searching for short-term Medicare fixes, Gramm, along with Bob Kerrey and a handful of others, urged (without success) that demographics demanded a more fundamental, long-term change. In 1999, when censuring President Clinton for misconduct seemed an easy way out of the impeachment dilemma to many in both parties, it was Gramm who argued forcefully (and this time, successfully) that censure would violate the Constitution and set a terrible precedent.
Horn was accommodating to colleagues of both parties; Gramm, a stubborn burr-under-the-saddle type. But both have demonstrated that the skills of the academy — the ability to read carefully and think hard and treat serious subjects seriously — are important in the political world as well. Just as Horn prodded bureaucrats to act by handing out letter grades, Gramm tested opponents — and improved policy — by spotlighting questionable provisions buried in many bills.
Though they became politicians, they never stopped teaching.
David Broder can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200.