Coming through in the crunch

Defying daunting odds, Ohio Congressman Rob Portman pushed through retirement reform. Now the confidant of George W. Bush, Portman will be one of the president’s point men in a newly reconfigured Congress.

Defying daunting odds, Ohio Congressman Rob Portman pushed through retirement reform. Now the confidant of George W. Bush, Portman will be one of the president’s point men in a newly reconfigured Congress.

By Justin Dini
July 2001
Institutional Investor Magazine

Defying daunting odds, Ohio Congressman Rob Portman pushed through retirement reform. Now the confidant of George W. Bush, Portman will be one of the president’s point men in a newly reconfigured Congress.

You know you’ve arrived in George W. Bush’s Washington when the president gives you a nickname. Dozens have been handed out to politicians whose advice Dubya values, whose support Dubya needs or whose company Dubya enjoys. Rob Portman, the 45-year-old Republican congressman from Ohio, received his latest from the president in March.

“I was in the White House, and the president said, ‘We’re going to call you the Mule,’” Portman recalls. “He says, ‘You are going to be the pack mule, carrying some of our legislation.’”

The Mule made good on Bush’s charge when he carried the water for the president in galvanizing House support for his landmark $1.35 trillion tax cut. At the same time, Portman was hauling some heavy cargo of his own. At the 11th hour, as the House and Senate conferred on a compromise plan, the Ohio congressman managed to slip into the tax package a version of Portman-Cardin, the retirement reform bill that he has been carting through Congress with Benjamin Cardin, his Democratic co-sponsor, since 1997. Their bill gradually raises the cap on annual contributions to 401(k)s from $10,500 to $15,000 and on IRA contributions from $2,000 to $5,000.

What made Portman’s achievement so notable was that President Bush had vowed to exclude all business-friendly “Christmas-tree ornaments” from the legislation in order to ensure its smooth passage. But Portman, a Bush family friend for two decades, nonetheless managed to fashion - with Dubya’s tacit approval - the only significant piece of the tax-cut package that did not originate in the White House.

How was that possible? In the first place, his bill was fairly popular within the administration, which chose to treat it with a kind of “benign neglect,” says Portman. “The White House didn’t object to the bill, but they didn’t support it either. They had the ability to stop it, and they never did.” Then there was the stunning defection of Vermont Senator James Jeffords from the Republican ranks. That made it essential to move the retirement bill quickly, since there was virtually no chance that a Democratic-controlled Senate would approve a second tax package.

“The Jeffords decision absolutely heightened our sense of urgency,” Portman says.

The showdown for retirement reform came as the conference committee hammered out the final details of the tax cut in late May. Tenacious, relentless, convinced that success was finally within reach, Portman spent 72 hours straight with committee staffers. Though not a member of the conference, he was the only legislator allowed to wait in the corridors outside the various rooms throughout the Capitol in which the committee deliberated. Portman massaged numbers, answered questions and crafted strategies to forge a winning consensus. When he left the Capitol to sleep for an hour or so, he kept his cell phone and pager on his pillow.

The tricky part - and Portman’s great challenge - was to ensure that retirement reform, estimated to cost just under $50 billion in foregone revenues, could be included without swelling the total cost of the package to more than $1.35 trillion, the maximum that the Senate was willing to approve. The centerpiece of Bush’s tax package, from the beginning, was across-the-board reductions in personal income taxes, with the White House hoping to slash the top rate from 39.6 percent to 33 percent. The conference committee was willing to go down, but not that far. Briefly, it appeared that passing Portman’s bill might cost the president part of his cut. “Frankly, several Republicans approached me and insisted that including Portman-Cardin would be the difference between cutting the top rate to 36 percent versus 35 percent,” Portman says. In the end, the committee reduced the top rate to 35 percent. The legislation also eliminates the marriage penalty tax and will gradually do away with the federal estate tax; it doubles the child tax credit and makes a portion of college tuition payments tax-deductible.

In addition to increasing the caps on IRA and 401(k) contributions, the tax package includes a host of other pension provisions. Among them: raising the employer contribution limits, increasing the cap on catch-up contributions for workers over 50 and making it easier for workers to take their 401(k) plans with them when they change jobs. It also loosens current restrictions that the legislation’s proponents say discourage small businesses from offering retirement plans.

“It’s a great victory,” Portman declared two hours after passage of the tax cut, as he flew to the Grand Canyon to meet his 11-year-old son for a five-day kayaking trip down the Colorado River. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment.”

So too has the financial services industry, which has in the past four years lobbied hard for retirement reform. Certainly, the bill presents a major opportunity for the investment firms and insurers that will manage the billions in new savings created by the bill.

“Portman’s face belongs on the Mount Rushmore of the financial services industry,” says Stuart Brahs, a lobbyist for Principal Financial Group, who is quick to credit Cardin, as well as Senators Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, and Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, for their roles in getting the pension law enacted. (Baucus and Grassley included their version of Portman-Cardin’s pension provisions in the tax-cut bill that passed the Senate after the House had approved its own package of cuts in April.)

No one has yet projected the likely effects of the higher 401(k) and IRA contribution limits, but they will surely be substantial, and, of course, the new money comes with no additional marketing or customer acquisition costs. At the end of 2000, 401(k) plans held some $1.8 trillion in assets, according to Cerulli Associates, a research firm. Even without an increase in the 401(k) cap, Cerulli projects total 401(k) assets of $3.4 trillion by 2006. IRAs at the end of 2000 claimed $2.4 trillion in assets. By comparison, partially privatizing Social Security by setting up individual accounts - Bush’s campaign pledge and one of several competing scenarios for reform of the system - would produce personal account balances of about $3 trillion by 2015, according to a Social Security Administration report on a similar proposal.

Portman’s work on retirement reform has made him best known to outsiders as Mr. 401(k) on Capitol Hill, but in George W. Bush’s Washington, he is no ordinary GOP congressman. A friend of the Bush family since 1981, when he worked as an advance man for then-vice president George H.W. Bush, Portman draws upon a close personal relationship with the president and wields more influence than even many Beltway regulars appreciate.

“Bush knows Rob Portman, he’s comfortable around Rob Portman, and he will say anything he wants to Rob Portman,” says retirement reform co-sponsor Cardin. “And it seems that Rob Portman would be comfortable saying anything he wants to the president.”

Even as he focused his energies on retirement reform, Portman played a critical if low-key role this spring in helping to push Bush’s tax cut through the House. As chairman of the Republican leadership, Portman helped unite GOP representatives and the White House behind the piecemeal and ultimately successful approach to getting the tax plan through: passing the elimination of the marriage penalty as one measure, the phaseout of the estate tax as another measure and so on. And as the final details of the tax bill were being hammered out in conference, Portman acted as the main liaison between the White House and House Ways and Means chairman William Thomas, Republican of California, a key player in enacting the tax cut.

Portman may prove to be an even more valuable ally now that the defection of Senator Jeffords leaves the Senate under Democratic control. The congressman is likely to emerge as a strong voice in fighting to simplify the federal tax code and in the debate over reforming Social Security. Because Social Security is such a politically charged issue, Democrats and Republicans appear likely to postpone the battle until after the 2002 elections. But the debate has already galvanized interest groups on both sides of what will almost certainly be a fierce fight over privatization of at least part of the system. In May Bush appointed a commission to study reform options whose members are seen as leaning toward privatization.

Lanky, unassuming, with an amiable, soft-spoken demeanor that recalls the Cincinnati tax lawyer he once was, Portman is sometimes underestimated. But not for long. A relentless, hard-driving legislator, Portman is known to exhaust his opponents and inspire the support of his friends.

“Rob Portman is one of the most intense individuals I’ve ever met,” says Cardin. Last summer, before a House vote on Portman-Cardin in which the bill would garner more than 400 votes - out of 435 representatives - Portman cornered a fellow Republican who opposed the bill. “I literally had to pull him off the member,” Cardin recalls. “Rob just never has enough votes.”

Yet Portman is a hard man to dislike. “Rob’s strengths come from his conviction on issues and then his effectiveness in getting things done,” writes former president George H.W. Bush in response to questions Institutional Investor sent to him. “Much of this is because he is good with people. He makes friends, not enemies.”

Hill staffers know him as a congressman who loves the gritty arcana of lawmaking. Portman’s mastery of the complex details of the pension legislation made him indispensable in the hours leading up to its passage. Of the 186 pages that make up the tax bill, the pension legislation takes up 85. At 4:00 a.m. on Saturday, May 26, the day the bill was eventually passed by Congress, as legislators and their aides pored over the final details of the bill, “nobody else could make sense of it,” says one GOP House aide. Portman reports that cranky congressmen were tempted to delete some of the more abstruse pension language just to speed things along, but he persuaded them to persevere. “The pension components were very complicated, and at that point we were all exhausted, but those details made for crucially important public policy,” Portman says.

“If there is one thing that defines Rob Portman, it is that he is a very serious legislator,” says Rick Lazio, who was Portman’s closest friend in the House before losing the New York Senate race to Hillary Rodham Clinton last year.

And now Ohio Congressman Rob Portman has some very serious legislation to his name.

Descendants of abolitionists who helped run the Underground Railroad, Portmans have been living in the Buckeye State since the mid-19th century.

Rob Portman was born outside Cincinnati in 1955 to Joan and Bill Portman. His father owned a forklift equipment business, Portman Equipment Co., now run by Rob Portman’s older brother William (Wym) Portman. (Congressman Portman still owns a small piece of the business.)

Other than a three-year stint in Cleveland when Portman was a toddler, the family, which includes Portman’s sister Ginna, now 42, lived in two of Cincinnati’s tonier suburbs, Hyde Park and Indian Hill. Both are in Ohio’s second district, which Portman now represents.

He had political ambitions early - as a ninth-grader at the exclusive Cincinnati Country Day School, Portman ran unsuccessfully for secretary-treasurer of his class. It was a “crushing defeat,” he now recalls with a laugh, but it was also the last election he ever lost.

While an undergraduate majoring in anthropology at Dartmouth College, Portman interned for Willis Gradison, the congressman he would eventually succeed. In his junior year Portman took a semester off. Along with a few friends, he kayaked all 1,900 miles of the Rio Grande, which runs from the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico in Brownsville, Texas. Portman and his buddies covered the distance in two separate monthlong legs. (Portman keeps a kayak in the House gym and uses it in the gym pool every morning.) “When Rob creates his own vision for himself, he will absolutely follow through until he achieves it,” brother Wym says.

Portman graduated from Dartmouth in 1979 and went to work in Washington. In the spring of 1981, he joined the staff of the new vice president, George H.W. Bush, beginning a relationship with the Bush family that has shaped much of Portman’s political career. “I really owe 41 big time,” Portman says, using, of course, the nickname that George W. Bush bestowed upon his father, the 41st president of the U.S.

After earning his law degree from the University of Michigan and working for two law firms, Portman served as the Cincinnati coordinator for Bush Sr.'s 1988 presidential campaign. After Bush won, the new administration tapped Portman to serve in the White House, first in the White House Counsel’s Office and later as director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs.

In 1991 the president offered Portman the post of staff secretary, one of the most powerful jobs in the White House. But Portman turned it down: His mother had been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer, and Portman wanted to return to Cincinnati to spend more time with her. (Joan Portman died in 1994.) “He didn’t think twice about it,” says Joseph Hagin, a deputy chief of staff in the current White House who has known Portman since the fourth grade.

Then, in December 1992, Gradison, who had just won re-election to the House for a tenth term, decided to step down for a lobbying job. A special election for his replacement was scheduled for March 1993.

Portman, then 37, jumped into the Republican primary as an underdog, taking on well-known former congressman Bob McEwen, who had served in the House from 1981 to 1992. During the primary another GOP candidate, wealthy homebuilder Jay Buchert, tried to smear Portman by linking him to Haitian dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier. (Patton Boggs, Portman’s old law firm, represented the Duvaliers, but Portman hadn’t worked with them.)

Portman implored Gradison, who had pledged that he wouldn’t endorse anyone in the primary, to come out on his behalf. “Finally, a few weeks before the primary, I agreed to endorse him,” Gradison says. “Rob already had a letter typed up.”

Portman clearly shared the sensibility of his district, which Gradison describes as conservative but not reactionary. And with a late-inning pitch from Barbara Bush, who taped a radio ad on Portman’s behalf, he won the primary. His margin of victory: little more than 3,000 votes.

In Ohio’s second district, the most solidly Republican in the state, Portman breezed by his Democratic opponent, Lee Hornberger, in the general election, snaring 70 percent of the vote. He has enjoyed a similar majority in each of the past four elections.

After the 1994 midterm elections, when the GOP, led by Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America, seized control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, Portman secured a spot on the Ways and Means Committee. Soon after, he became co-chairman, with then-senator Bob Kerrey, Democrat of Nebraska, of a commission to examine ways to improve the IRS.

When he met Portman for the first time, Kerrey recalls, “I thought he was smart, he was attentive, and he appeared to be someone you could trust.”

The Senate Finance Committee, of which Kerrey was a member, held hearings in 1996 that allowed taxpayers to testify about IRS excesses and abuses. The high-profile hearings helped give IRS reform the momentum it would need to become law. But they also served the interests of staunch conservatives, who used the horror stories of ordinary taxpayers to justify their attempt to gut the IRS.

The hearings set off a stampede of interest in trying to see how far you could go,” Kerrey recalls. “Rob stood up to people in his caucus and kept the bill in better shape than it otherwise might’ve been.”

In July 1998 then-president Bill Clinton signed into law the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act, the most sweeping overhaul of the agency since 1952. It created a permanent oversight board and shifted the burden of proof in tax court cases from the individual to the agency.

That same year, Portman authored legislation that renamed Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the George Bush Center for Intelligence. “I was deeply touched by Rob’s initiative in naming the intelligence HQ for me,” Bush wrote II. “He was the driving force behind this high honor that really means a great deal to me.”

Portman met George W. Bush for the first time at the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans, when Bush Sr. was nominated for the presidency and Portman was an Ohio delegate. “We were backstage. I remember cowboy boots, I remember a cigar, and I remember a lot of backslapping.”

The relationship deepened once Bush Sr. ascended to the presidency and after Bush Jr. was elected Texas governor in 1994. Dubya told Portman in 1999 that he would run for president before he officially announced his intentions. Portman joined the campaign as an unofficial domestic policy adviser and as a link between the candidate and Hill Republicans. He played the role of Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman in helping Dick Cheney prepare for the vice presidential debate, and he played vice president Al Gore in Bush’s prep debates. The only congressman in Austin on election night, he later helped monitor recounts in Florida’s Broward and Miami-Dade counties. “It was just miserable,” he recalls.

Portman says he rejected an offer to become a cabinet officer, because he felt his native intensity would have kept him from spending time with Jane, his wife of 15 years, and his three children, all of whom are under the age of 12. “I knew I would never see my family,” says Portman.

His importance to the incoming administration became evident almost immediately. On December 15, the day after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bush, effectively making him the 43rd president, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, declared that Bush should abandon his plans to push his $1.6 trillion tax cut plan through Congress as a single package. Instead, he argued, the White House should opt for a more politically palatable approach, passing the elements of its tax agenda one at a time. The press seized on Hastert’s remarks as a sign of dissension within the Republican ranks.

Portman, in a flurry of meetings and phone calls with GOP congressmen and the Bush team, moved quickly behind the scenes to assure the White House that Hastert and company were actually on board. The White House quietly agreed to use Hastert’s strategy. By April the House had passed by healthy margins bills that provided a tax credit for families with children and that repealed the inheritance tax and the marriage penalty tax. The House also pushed through the centerpiece of the Bush agenda, an across-the-board reduction in tax rates. Before the end of his first 100 days, the new president watched his entire tax package sail through one house of Congress.

Retirement reform proved TO BE A MUCH tougher slog for the Mule. Portman and Cardin introduced their first piece of pension legislation on November 2, 1995. That bill (which became law in 1996 as part of the Small Business Job Protection Act) established so-called Simple accounts for small businesses to offer their employees retirement plans. The two then co-sponsored the Pension Simplification Act of 1995, which also aimed to make it easier for small businesses to offer pension plans to their employees. In 1997 the two teamed again to push for a public pension reform provision that was designed to prevent cash-strapped local governments from raiding the pension funds of state and local employees. The provision was signed into law as part of the Taxpayer Relief Act that year.

Portman-Cardin seemed to be heading into the homestretch last July when the House passed the bill by a vote of 401-25. The Senate Finance Committee then approved the legislation unanimously in September. Less than two months before the election, though, congressional Republicans opted to include Portman-Cardin in their tax cut proposal, legislation that president Clinton had already vowed to veto. The House managed to pass a slightly modified version of the bill weeks before Election Day, but the Senate shelved it.

Ultimately, Congress failed to include the legislation in the bevy of budget measures it approved in its December lame-duck session, despite the fact that Clinton had indicated he would sign the bill if it arrived on his desk. Cardin says that the legislation was the victim of politics. “A Republican senator said to me: ‘Look, we are not sure we want to give a Democratic president credit for this thing. We’ll pass it quickly next year.’”

From the start, Portman focused on pension reform for a mix of reasons, both political and principled. As a politician, he understood that he could make a name for himself by latching on to a reasonably obscure cause. “Quite frankly, no one else was interested in pension reform,” he says.

Also, several insurers that were strong proponents of retirement reform, including Ohio National Financial Services and Union Central Life Insurance, are headquartered in Portman’s district. He has been naturally attentive to their concerns.

At the same time, Portman ardently believes that the country faces a savings crisis. The government should encourage individuals to save for retirement, he says, and it should smooth the way for small businesses to aid in that effort. Portman points to his family’s business, which his father started in 1960. Portman Equipment Co. began offering 401(k)s soon after they were created in 1981, Portman says. “There are guys today who have turned a wrench for 30 or 40 years, who even with this bad market have built up assets of $300,000 or $400,000 in their accounts,” he says. “That is what it’s all about.”

Still, some of Portman’s critics charge that his retirement reform does little to help moderate- and low-income earners. They also argue that his legislation focused mostly on helping small businesses, not their workers, by weakening the “top-heavy” provisions that were put in place 20 years ago to ensure that 401(k)s were equitable. Under those rules, when 60 percent of a plan’s assets are in the accounts of the company’s owners and other senior executives, the plan is considered top-heavy, and the employer must make contributions of 3 percent of pay for all other employees who have worked for the company at least three years. Portman-Cardin, among other things, loosens the definition of top-heavy and eliminates certain requirements to collect data from five prior years, a provision small businesses found burdensome.

After the Supreme Court declared Bush the winner of the 2000 election, the new president focused almost exclusively on his proposed tax cut. “I’m going to resist the Christmas-tree effect of tax policy,” Bush said in late February. “I don’t want people putting ornaments on my plan.”

Yet Portman vowed to somehow get his bill in. At a decisive moment, House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas stepped forward to help the cause. “I think [Portman-Cardin] is the most important thing we can do for the economy,” Armey told reporters on May 2, hours before the House overwhelmingly approved Portman-Cardin. “I will fight to include this provision in the [tax] package we send to the president.”

Still, the Senate GOP leadership - then-majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and his deputy, Don Nickles of Oklahoma - made it clear that they planned to cut pension reform out of the reconciliation bill once it arrived in the conference committee. Nickles told a gathering of insurance executives on May 17 that he would work to strip out Portman-Cardin to make more room in the bill for Bush’s proposed cut in the top income tax rate and a faster phaseout of the estate tax.

As soon as the Senate passed its slimmed-down version of the tax bill on May 23, Portman huddled in a small hideaway inside the Capitol with Ways and Means chairman Thomas, who served as a member of the conference committee that crafted the compromise bill that Bush ultimately signed. The main obstacle to including retirement reform in the tax package: A provision targeting lower-income workers, which moderate Senate Democrats insisted upon, would dramatically increase the cost of the bill. “We had a one-pound bag to put two pounds of sugar in,” Portman says.

The estimated cost of the original House version of Portman-Cardin, which didn’t include the two Senate provisions geared toward lower-income workers, was roughly $52 billion over ten years. The Senate version was closer to $80 billion because of those two credits. Max Baucus, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee and a cadre of other moderate Senate Democrats including Louisiana’s John Breaux, were insisting that one of its provisions - a tax credit matching elective contributions of up to $2,000 for low- and middle-income savers - be included in the final version. That would cost about $10 billion, and Portman had to find a way to fit it into the bill. Portman arrived at his meeting with Thomas armed with three different proposals to ensure that the numbers added up.

Portman made his numbers work by lengthening the phase-in period for some of the cap increases. Specifically, he extended the amount of time during which the increases in the caps on IRA contributions will take effect (the increase to $4,000 happens in 2005 rather than in 2003, and to $5,000 in 2008 rather than 2005, with $500 annual cost-of-living increases thereafter) and altered 30 or so other provisions in the bill. The final estimated cost of the pension provisions: $49.6 billion.

By Friday night May 25, it seemed a safe bet that reform would make it through. But around 11:00 that night, Portman faced one final obstacle. The Senate parliamentarian decreed that the portability provisions - a major feature of the bill designed to make it easier for workers to transport their 401(k) plans among the private, public and nonprofit sectors - had no place in a tax relief bill. Portman and his aides scrambled to convince the parliamentarian that the portability provisions would have an impact on the federal budget if workers exercised them. He succeeded in getting the portability provisions included, but was consequently forced to jettison some proposed changes to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Among the changes: making more flexible rules regarding nondiscrimination testing and reductions in the premiums that small companies must pay the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. Portman vows to get those ERISA provisions passed later this year. “The fight is never over,” he says.

Throughout those final days, though, Portman continued to play the good soldier to the White House. When the conference committee first convened, according to someone close to negotiations, Thomas held firm on cutting the top tax rate from 39.6 percent to 33 percent, which was in the legislation originally passed by the House. But Senate negotiators balked - their version of the tax cut had a top rate of 36 percent.

Portman urged Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, to join the discussions to persuade Thomas to soften his position. Bush weighed in by calling Thomas personally on Friday, and Thomas soon agreed to the 35 percent that was ultimately passed.

What’s next for Mr. 401(k) now that retirement reform is behind him? Many in Washington expect Portman to play a significant role in Social Security reform - whenever that battle is joined. “Rob Portman will be a major player on Social Security reform,” says Cardin.

Bush campaigned on partially privatizing the Social Security system, which is projected to go broke sometime in the next three decades, by diverting some portion, most likely 2 percentage points of the current 12.4 percent payroll tax, into personal retirement accounts for each individual worker. In May the president announced the creation of a 16-member bipartisan commission on Social Security, co-chaired by former New York senator Daniel Moynihan and AOL Time Warner co-chief operating officer Richard Parsons, with an autumn deadline to produce a report. Portman says he met with the president soon after he appointed the commission, and he has already assigned a staffer to spend much of his time studying the issue.

It now seems likely that Congress will not begin any serious discussion of Social Security until after the midterm elections in 2002. Senator Breaux, a forceful advocate of Social Security reform, says the chances that the current Congress will reform the system are “zero to none.”

Still, financial services companies, which stand to gain from the billions of dollars that would flow into personal Social Security accounts, are moving full speed ahead on the lobbying front. They have formed a coalition that will reportedly raise millions of dollars to fund a high-profile advertising campaign pushing partial privatization. At the same time, antiprivatization groups like the AFL-CIO are forming alliances of their own.

Portman is beginning to look into legislation that would simplify the federal tax code and is also hoping to gradually eliminate the complicated alternative minimum tax, or AMT.

Whatever his success with Social Security reform and the AMT, Portman will likely play an increasingly visible role in the newly constituted Congress. That reflects both his personal connection to Bush and his new stature as an effective legislator who can deliver on a tight deadline.

“Portman’s influence and importance have increased substantially,” says one veteran lobbyist. “He’s perfectly positioned to smooth the relationship between the White House and Congress.”

That’s no simple task, but neither was retirement reform.

The Portman-Cardin tango

Like an old married couple, Rob Portman and Benjamin Cardin, co-sponsors of legislation to overhaul the nation’s private retirement system, learned over the years to tolerate their differences. Where Portman, an Ohio Republican, is generally reserved and composed, Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, can be blustery and outspoken. Ideologically, the two diverge on any number of hypersensitive issues, including, most recently, tax cuts and even Social Security reform. (In fact, in May Cardin voted against the $1.35 trillion tax cut bill that included most of Portman-Cardin.) But after forging a bipartisan partnership in 1997 to push through their pension reform legislation, the two congressmen have stuck together.

“History links some names in perpetuity. Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, Rob Portman and Ben Cardin,” North Dakota Democrat Earl Pomeroy joked at a March press conference, after Portman and Cardin reintroduced their bill for the fifth time.

“I don’t know who’s Fred and who’s Ginger, but I can tell you that I’m a lot better looking than Rob is,” Cardin says.

In a more serious vein, he adds that he and Portman are “a natural pairing. We both identified an issue and set about trying to get something done. We both had to have the courage to take on some of the more extreme elements in each of our parties, and we did that.”

The 57-year-old Cardin, whose father and uncle both had long careers in Maryland politics, has spent virtually his entire career in the family business. While still in law school at the University of Maryland in 1967, he won a spot in Maryland’s House of Delegates, representing northwest Baltimore. He served in the Maryland legislature for 19 years, becoming Speaker of the House in 1979. Among his accomplishments: joining forces with a Republican in a controversial effort to overhaul Maryland’s underfunded state pension fund in 1984.

In 1986 the voters of Maryland’s third district, which includes Baltimore and some of its outlying suburbs, elected Cardin to Congress. Since he arrived on Capitol Hill, Cardin has teamed with Portman on overhauling the Internal Revenue Service, as well as on reforms of federal pension law. Cardin also served as an adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health care task force; he remains a forceful voice in the debate over prescription drug benefits.

At the same time, while an unabashed supporter of president Clinton and an ardent Democrat, he has cultivated a reputation for setting aside partisan differences to achieve policy goals - something not all in his party appreciate. Portman-Cardin itself, while wildly popular in the House of Representatives, inspired considerable anxiety among traditional liberal Democratic constituencies. They argued that the legislation does little to help lower-income workers and strips away worker protections in streamlining the “top-heavy” rules (story).

“We brought all the different groups in, and we made it clear to them that they weren’t going to write a bill,” Cardin says. “It wasn’t going to be an industry bill; it wasn’t going to be a labor bill; it wasn’t going to be a Republican bill; it wasn’t going to be a Democratic bill.”

Says Portman, “Ben has been fantastic, and willing to take the heat on his side of the aisle.”