During the 2012 presidential primary season, Republican candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich vied with each other in asserting ownership of historic welfare reform legislation. The measure was signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, who claimed it as one of the major achievements of his administration.
Absent from the discussion was any mention of former South Florida GOP congressman E. Clay Shaw, who died recently at the age of 74. As a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Shaw was the prime mover in originating and crafting the legislation, and winning support for it in a fractious Congress.
During the primary battles, I asked him about the omission of his name by Santorum and Gingrich. In typically understated Shaw fashion, he replied to the effect: "You can accomplish a lot in Washington if you don't care who gets the credit."
And make no mistake about it. Shaw deserves the lion's share of the credit for welfare reform.
Shaw went on to say that both Santorum and Gingrich played important roles in getting the legislation through Congress, and he gave Clinton a thumbs-up for signing the welfare reform measure in the face of substantial opposition in the Democratic Party. He also praised Donna Shalala, then the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and now president of the University of Miami, for her role.
"She fought me on welfare reform, but when it became the law she did everything she could to make it a success," he told me. Unlike many in today's politics, Shaw wasn't reluctant to give credit where credit is due.
As Shaw's friend, the late Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill, used to say, "Politics ain't beanbag."
It isn't a fight to the death, either, and Shaw knew accomplishing anything of value in politics requires working with others, including those from the opposition. Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham was among the Democrats with whom Shaw worked best. Among other things, their cooperation resulted in a major federal commitment to restore the Everglades.
"He was a loyal member of the Republican Party," Graham says of Shaw, "but he always put the interest of his state and his nation ahead of partisan positions. He was smart and pragmatic, and you knew that when he took on a project, it would be done right."
As chairman of the Social Security subcommittee of Ways and Means, Shaw succeed in pushing through legislation that lifted the earnings limit for everyone of full retirement age. Under his leadership, the subcommittee also developed the Social Security Guarantee Plus Plan. It would have created personal investment accounts, not through Social Security taxes, but through contributions from the general fund, which at the time was in surplus.
The Office of Management and Budget found Shaw's plan to be financially sound. President Clinton even told Shaw that if he could muster support from some top Democrats, he would get behind the idea.
Unfortunately, the effort by hyper-partisans in the GOP to remove Clinton from office over the Monica Lewinsky affair torpedoed any chance of cross-party cooperation on Social Security. Failure to win passage was one of Shaw's biggest disappointments as a congressman, but the Guarantee Plus Plan still would be viable should the nation ever again get around to balancing its budget.
Shaw served as mayor of Fort Lauderdale before his election to Congress, and he never lost his love for the city. In 1986, Shaw chaired the local committee that pushed a series of successful bond issues that were vital to Fort Lauderdale's development. He won funding for the Intracoastal bridge by Port Everglades that bears his name. Shaw knew the importance of the nuts and bolts of politics, and constituent services in his district were second to none.
Shaw recognized a certain symmetry in his congressional career.
He entered office in the 1980 Republican landslide that elevated Ronald Reagan to the presidency. He left office after the 2006 election, a victim of the Democratic landslide that decimated the GOP's congressional ranks.
During the 26 years in between, Shaw accomplished a great deal as a Republican in largely Democratic South Florida.
He did so through hard work, by respecting the opinions of others, and by maintaining the dignity of his office during an era in which dignity often was in short supply.
Kingsley Guy's column appears every other Sunday. Email him at Harborlite3@bellsouth.net.