They Can Read His Ups, but Will Pat Moynihan's Fellow Senators Ever Be Able to Reap His Mind?

updated 02/19/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/19/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Budget Director Richard Darman calls it "the most irresponsible idea of the 1990s." Vice President Dan Quayle denounces it as "a political trap" and insists, "Once people understand it, they won't fall for it." Such an adamant Administration response would be routine were the idea in question another of those fabled Democratic tax hikes. But Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's proposal is to cut Social Security taxes. And the puckish New York Democrat couldn't be more delighted by the Republicans' scathing reviews. "I think the Administration responded a little bit as if they had got caught," says Moynihan, 62. "I'm having fun about a serious issue—trust."

Moynihan, a maverick intellectual whose politics often defy characterization as liberal or conservative, revels in causing the occasional uproar. This time his complaint is that the government is borrowing $1 billion a week from the surplus in the Social Security trust fund to cover current operating expenses, even though the money will all have to be paid back someday to fund retirement benefits. "This money is being used as general revenue," he says. "These are trust funds, and we're misusing them."

One effect of treating this borrowed money as if it were ordinary tax revenue, Moynihan points out, is to grossly understate the deficit: Last year's reported $152 billion in federal red ink would have been $204 billion if Social Security funds had been put outside the budget. Another effect, according to Moynihan, is to pile too many of the government's bills on the backs of wage earners. "Income tax cuts for the rich and payroll tax increases for everyone else have left middle-income workers bearing a disproportionate burden," he says. Accordingly, Moynihan's bill would cut Social Security taxes by $55 billion next year, which, he maintains, can be done without endangering benefits.

But then how would the federal budget shortfall be made up? "I don't address that," says Moynihan coyly. Those who would guess what he is up to are left to ponder such opaque pronouncements as his recent press-breakfast observation: "The Talmud says that just because a problem can be shown to exist, it does not follow that there is a solution." The pundits' consensus, as set forth by columnist Paul A. Gigot in the Wall Street Journal: Moynihan "really wants to kill Mr. Bush's cut in capital gains taxes or force him to raise other taxes."

The President himself read Moynihan just that way. "I think people thought, 'Well, here's a chance to put the President on the defensive about a tax cut'—something of that nature," said Bush. If that was the plan, it may be working. As New York Times columnist Tom Wicker observed, Moynihan's proposal is "nearly diabolical in the numerous political problems it poses for Mr. Bush and the Republicans." They are put in the position of opposing a tax cut for working people while favoring a capital gains tax cut. More than half of the benefits from that cut, Moynihan says, would go to "the top two-tenths of 1 percent of taxpayers."

Moynihan has not spurred much congressional enthusiasm for his bill. But he did get everyone talking, which may have been the point. "I think it's very good to put new ideas on the table," says Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm. "This one is bad, but we've benefited from the debate. One of the good things about Pat is that he's willing to look at ideas and go against the conventional wisdom."

He always has, as his unique résumé attests. A onetime Times Square shoeshine boy, later a bartender and dockworker, Moynihan rose out of New York's tenements to earn a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His first book, Beyond the Melting Pot, written with Nathan Glazer in 1963, set forth the then novel proposition that Americans tend to maintain their diverse ethnic identities. In 1965, as an obscure undersecretary in Lyndon Johnson's Labor Department, he authored a controversial report attributing the problems of black Americans largely to the disintegration of the black family—a thesis denounced by many critics as racist. A lifelong Democrat, he later took leave from a Harvard professorship to become President Richard Nixon's chief domestic adviser and persuaded the conservative Republican to propose a guaranteed annual income for all Americans—a plan that died on Capitol Hill. Then, as President Gerald Ford's Ambassador to the United Nations, he was likened to an "unguided missile" by foreign-policy pros because of his verbal assaults on diplomats who dared criticize the U.S. His stand-tall posture at the UN helped him win a Senate seat in 1976.

Now in his third term, Moynihan has impressed his peers as brilliant but arrogant. They admire his intellect—he has written, co-written or edited 14 books and has 55 honorary degrees—but would rather he did not correct his colleagues' grammar in public. He once impugned his fellow legislators' diligence by introducing a resolution that no bill be passed unless at least half of the senators supporting it could attest to having read it.

They will all read his Social Security bill—or at least read about it. He has America right where he wants it now: listening to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the man who once compared himself to Gone with the Wind's Rhett Butler: "I've always had a weakness for lost causes."

—James S. Kunen, Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C.

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