Former Sen. Russell Long dead at 84

May 10, 2003 at 7:18 AM
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WASHINGTON, May 10 (UPI) -- The legislative godfather of the earned income tax credit as well as of countless business tax breaks, former Louisiana Democratic Senator Russell Long, died Friday night of apparent heart failure. He was 84.

Long was pronounced dead at George Washington University Hospital at 10 p.m. where he had been rushed from his home in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of the nation's capital.

The consummate master of tax policy and an ardent defender of business tax breaks -- especially for the oil and gas industry -- Sen. Long also had a populist streak he may have inherited from his father Huey Long, a legend in the Senate and the victim of a 1935 assassination.

Russell Long served in the Senate from 1948 until his retirement in 1986. For 16 of those years he was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Born Nov. 3, 1918 in the red-clay pineywoods of central Louisiana, Russell Billieu Long transformed innate political horse sense he inherited from his father and uncle into a brand of politics that made him a Senate power.

He came of age in the tumultuous years of the Depression when his father Huey P. Long, Louisiana's most famous governor and senator, was declaring "every man a king" and endorsing a nationwide "share the wealth" program.

Russell Long won his first election as president of the Louisiana State University student body by promising his supporters jobs in his father's administration and in 1948, by the age of 30, the Kingfish's son was a member of the U.S. Senate.

After being elected in 1948 to fill the unexpired term of the late John Overton, he was reelected in 1950 and again every six years through 1980.

In 1985 he surprised his official Washington and much of the business community when he announced he would not seek an eighth term the following year.

For more than 30 years, his colleagues cringed when the jowly, twinkle-eyed Long in a habitually rumpled suit approached to throw his arm around a shoulder and squeeze out a promise of a vote.

"When he is talking to you and he starts scooting his chair toward you, you'd better look out," a Washington veteran once said.

He knew the value of a political trade. He voted for President Carter's controversial Panama Canal treaties, much to the dismay of the folks at home, but Washington observers sat back to watch what the wily Louisianian won in return.

"Russell will trade on that Panama Canal thing for the next four years," a lobbyist said. "You just watch."

Long inherited the rough, shrewd political savvy from his father and his Uncle Earl, another Louisiana governor, retaining the guile and folksiness and refining the rough edges to fit into Washington power circles.

"It's like my ol' Uncle Earl used to say, 'you might as well admit it because it's true,'" Long would say with a smile to clinch an argument.

Although best known for his sponsorship of a myriad assortment of business tax breaks, Long pushed through the earned income tax credit that has benefited millions of the working poor. In the years since it has come to be worth as much as $4,700 in money from the government for a married couple with two or more children, earning less than $34,000 a year.

Dubbed the "Princefish" early in his Senate career, Long overcame years of heavy drinking and erratic behavior which coincided with the breakup of his first marriage and used the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee as his base of power.

He knew the tax code better than any other member of Congress, having crafted many of the provisions. He often chuckled at the futility of tax reform efforts. Recalling an Uncle Earl story, Long would say: "Don't tax him and don't tax me. Tax the man behind the tree."

Long also was a master of parliamentary procedures, often sidestepping the constitutional requirement that revenue measures originate in the House of Representatives. Once he attached a major tax bill to an innocuous House measure exempting a local church from paying the import tariff on its Swiss-made bells, prompting some political pundits to dub his legislation "the miracle of the bells".

Even when he lost the chairmanship post when Republicans captured a majority of Senate seats in 1980, Long was still considered the dean of tax policy.

Initially the new Finance Committee chairman, Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, sought Long's advice and consent. But the honeymoon ended soon afterwards, when Long felt he was betrayed in some political horsetrading, and he turned his considerable political skills against Dole, causing the Republican chairman some embarrassing defeats.

While business lobbyists courted Long and eagerly contributed to his political campaigns, tax reformers and consumer advocates criticized him. They considered him a tool of big business and charged he used the Finance Committee to fashion tailor-made tax loopholes for big business.

Long in return admitted no love for consumer advocates, whom he called Ralph Nader's "wet-behind-the-ears boys", or tax reforming colleagues such as Sens. William Proxmire, Edmund Muskie and Edward Kennedy.

Kennedy was a foremost foe. During Long's heavy drinking years, Kennedy ousted him as majority whip.

With his personal problems behind him, chairing his powerful committee in hearings on a 1976 Tax Reform Act, Long let Kennedy know that the Bostonian's family mystique cut little ice with the Louisianan at a 1976 hearing on tax reform.

Commenting on the inequities of life in general and the tax code in particular, Long told Kennedy:

"I didn't make this world, I was born in it. Somewhat like you."

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