Fear And Loathing On The Hustings

`You are a disgrace to your country," ranted Eric from Allentown before he hung up on Representative Paul McHale. A freshman Democrat congressman from Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, McHale thought his Aug. 9 appearance on a popular call-in show on WAEB-AM radio would let him explain his vote for President Clinton's budget. But he also wound up getting an earful from irate constituents. "Thank you for successfully guaranteeing the end of small business in this district," snarled another caller, Jacob from Emmaus.

President Clinton knew that many supporters of his recently passed deficit-reduction package would be roundly criticized by constituents after voting to raise taxes by $241 billion over the next five years. But none is getting more heat than McHale and seven other House Democrats who voted against the President's plan on May 27, only to change sides to support the House-Senate compromise on Aug. 5.

After giving Clinton the narrowest of victories, the switchers face charges of hypocrisy, of caving in to pressure from the White House, and of engaging in unseemly horse-trading. The about-face "is a question of their integrity as officeholders," says Representative Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

NO APOLOGIES. So while many in Congress head for the sun, most of the Endangered Eight are hustling to explain themselves. It hasn't been easy going. Right after the showdown vote, McHale, a 43-year-old Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf war who unseated longtime GOP Representative Don Ritter last year, learned that Paxon's NRCC had called every major media outlet in his district to attack the vote. Then the GOP announced plans to denounce the vote switch on billboards around the district. But the deepest wound came when McHale, marching with his family in an Aug. 7 centennial parade in Wind Gap, Pa., encountered scattered obscenities from some disgruntled constituents.

What's really disconcerting to McHale and others is the breadth of confusion over what exactly is in the legislation they passed (table). Above all, individuals and business owners are convinced they face massive tax increases. But the Clinton Administration claims the rate hikes will affect only 1.2% of filers and 4% of small businesses. As for the widespread disgust at the law's retroactivity? Democrats note that only high-income taxpayers are affected.

McHale knows he has lots of explaining to do, but he blames Republican half-truths rather than his party's taxes. "It is critical that a truthful presentation of the bill be made immediately--and preferably sooner," he says.

McHale insists that his flip-flop was motivated by deeply held principles. His district is home to energy-intensive companies such as Bethlehem Steel Corp. and Mack Trucks Inc., and he opposed the original House bill because its BTU tax would hit such companies, he says. But once the energy levy was stripped down to a less onerous gas tax, McHale endorsed the legislation.

TOUGH SELL. The congressman has won praise from Bethlehem Steel Chief Executive Curtis H. Barnette for publicizing the dangers of the BTU tax. Barnette calls McHale "a very effective congressman" and says the tax bill is "a very important step" in reviving the economy.

And McHale is winning over some small-business owners and senior citizens who learn that their tax hike is negligible. "Like everyone else, I don't like to pay taxes," says Mayor James E. Mullen of Pennsburg, who will pay taxes on more of his Social Security benefits. "Deep down inside, while I'm not anxious to pay more, I think it's the fair thing to do."

For now, McHale is plugging away, one voter at a time. He and the 217 other House Democrats who backed the plan are optimistic they can placate voters by next Election Day. After hearing his congressman's windy description of the bill's details, Dennis Krause, owner of the Shady Nook Restaurant in Pennsburg, says: "I guess it's not going to be real bad. I don't mind paying the taxes if I'm making money." A backhanded endorsement at best--and an indication of how big a selling job Clinton and supporters such as McHale have ahead of them to convince voters the pain of deficit-cutting will ever equal the gain.



Higher taxes will hurt small business

The plan's $241 billion tax hike socks the middle class

Most Americans will be forced to pay retroactive taxes


The plan will only affect about 4% of small businesses

Wealthy taxpayers bear the burden of the new income taxes, and 98.8% of Americans will see no increase

Retroactive taxes are unfair, but only the wealthiest 1.2% of households will pay them