When Democratic Rep. Rob Andrews of New Jersey announced last week that he would resign from Congress after 25 years, little media attention was given to a proposal he co-sponsored two decades ago that could have changed history.
The "A-to-Z Spending Cuts Plan" would have placed every government program before the House Appropriations Committee for an item-by-item discussion, followed by votes on whether to reduce or even eliminate programs.
Described by media reports as "brash" and "inventive" in 1994, when it was introduced by then-Republican Rep. Bill Zeliff of New Hampshire and co-sponsored by Andrews, "A-to-Z" would have required the Appropriations Committee to reduce the 13 annual appropriations bills to one.
Under the proposal, lawmakers would then have been permitted 56 hours of debate by the full House on what programs to keep and not to keep, followed by an up-or-down vote on the remaining funding in the lone appropriations bill.
"It was a common project between Democrats and Republicans," Andrews said. "And with the national debt metastasizing from $4.5 trillion in 1994 to $17 trillion today, it's needed now more than it was 20 years ago."
In an exclusive interview with Newsmax, the New Jersey Democrat recalled how 20 years ago, Zeliff "came up to me on the House floor and said: 'Let's do something about deficit reduction. Your last name begins with A and mine begins with Z. You're a Democrat, and I'm a Republican. Will you co-sponsor this bill?'"
Andrews did, and soon the two were making the rounds of television talk shows and cities across America to line up support for "A-to-Z."
"I had one of my easiest races of my career," Zeliff told Newsmax. "So I was able to fly all over on behalf of 'A-to-Z.'"
Minnesota Rep. Tim Penny, a vigorous backer of deficit reduction, worked hard to line up fellow Democrats in the House to support the measure. Ross Perot, who had made deficit reduction a top issue in his independent bid for president in 1992, also weighed in strongly for "A-to-Z."
Andrews said, "I give Ross great credit for elevating support for our proposal."
But no one in the House hierarchy would let the measure come to a vote, so to get "A-to-Z" from the House Rules Committee to the full House, signatures from 218 members of Congress were needed on a discharge petition.
Ohio Democratic Rep. "Jimmy Traficant told me if we got to 217, he would cast the decisive vote to bring our bill to the floor," Zeliff recalled. "And he would always tell me he wanted something in return, because he really would be defying the House Democratic leadership."
But it was not to be. Andrews, Zeliff, and their allies managed to muster 204 signatures. Both co-sponsors strongly believe that House leaders were terrified of a proposal that would reduce or even eliminate funding for government programs.
"It would have put on the table all of the spending — entitlements, discretionary, all of it," Zeliff said.
Both Andrews and Zeliff — who left Congress in January 1997 — said they consider the report of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which recommends major spending cuts plus some tax increases, the package that most closely meets their vision of deficit reduction.
"It's not a great plan," Andrews said. "But I proudly voted for it when it was up in Congress."
Echoed Zeliff: "Simpson-Bowles is reasonable, and I would settle on anything reasonable to get rid of the deficit."
When it was offered two decades ago, "A-to-Z" was also an example of Republicans and Democrats coming together and nearly doing something bold and dramatic. Its bipartisanship lives on in its sponsors, who share a mutual respect for each other to this day.
"I have total respect for Rob Andrews,” Zeliff told Newsmax in discussing the exit from Congress of the Democrat he turned to for the bipartisan flavor his proposal needed. "I would go to him in a heartbeat for anything."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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