Andrew Jacobs, the Prince of Parsimony

Andrew Jacobs, the Prince of Parsimony
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Between Christmas and New Year's, a patriot named Andrew Jacobs Jr. passed from this vale. He was 81, and enjoyed a life full of accomplishment and adventure, so he should be celebrated, not mourned. Yet mourn him we must, because he reminds us of what is lacking on Capitol Hill today—and in Sacramento.

When voters in his native Indiana first sent Andy Jacobs to Congress in the 1960s, Ronald Reagan was emerging as a national political figure and “Big Daddy” Unruh was speaker of California’s assembly. “Money,” Unruh liked say, “is the mother’s milk of politics.” Andy Jacobs turned that notion upside down. Frugality and integrity were his sustenance.

In 1986, Jacobs won re-election to an 11th term in a swing district while raising $8,000 against a Republican opponent who outspent him 30-1—not counting a $300,000 independent expenditure against him by the American Medical Association.

“If the AMA is against you,” he quipped, “you must be doing something right.”

Populism came naturally to Jacobs, a proud liberal who supported affirmative action, early childhood education, and gun control. He opposed war, discrimination, capital punishment, eating meat—and, notably, deficit spending.

A self-described “parsimonious progressive,” Jacobs wouldn’t accept congressional pay raises. He took no overseas junkets, declined speaking fees, eschewed congressional mailing perks, and refused political contributions from special interest groups.

A U.S. Marine wounded in combat in Korea, he also turned down a disability pension from the Veterans Administration. “He didn’t think it was right to take that money, since he had a job with a good wage,” family friend Gary Taylor explained last week. “He was frugal, and that’s something I think the public really [liked] about him.”

His colleagues were less enamored, and tried unsuccessfully to prevent him from gaining a House Ways and Means subcommittee chairmanship. Jacobs was unbowed anyway: He believed Congress’ shirking of decisions about U.S. war-making responsibilities meant members were unworthy of their salaries anyway.

“The way I read the Constitution, the Congress is paid a salary to determine whether we should go to war,” he said. “Therefore, I don’t think Congress is earning its money.”

He could get under conservatives’ skins, too, especially when pursuing his pacifist leanings. Jacobs coined the phrases “war wimps” and “chicken hawks” to describe lawmakers who voted to send Americans to war, but who’d avoided military service when they were young.

Yet, one of the first Hoosiers to eulogize him was popular Indiana Republican William Hudnut, the only man who ever defeated Jacobs in an election. That was in 1972. Two years later, Jacobs recaptured his congressional seat, and Hudnut set his sights on being mayor of Indianapolis, a city he led with distinction for 16 years. “Indianapolis has lost one of its outstanding citizens,” Hudnut said last week. “I’ve lost a dear friend.”

These two public servants showed that being prudent with tax dollars doesn’t stifle economic growth. That was a difficult enough lesson for Democrats when Jacobs was politically active. It’s even harder today; the special interest money Jacobs eschewed now controls the Democratic Party in ways that would have surprised even Jesse Unruh.

In 1999, California’s Legislature, with the concurrence of Gov. Gray Davis, passed huge increases in pensions for state employees—and made them retroactive. California’s municipalities, urged on by the public employee unions that are so generous to Democrats at election time, followed suit. The upshot was a brand of beneficence that sounds like Tea Party-peddled urban myths: police officers in San Jose who retire at age 50 with lifetime annual pensions over $100,000. Ditto for lifeguards in Newport Beach. And so on.

It was unsustainable, of course, even without a housing bubble, stock market crash, and the Great Recession. In San Jose, 20 percent of the city’s operating budget now goes to paying people who no longer work for the taxpayers. This is typical of California cities, which, like San Jose, have closed numerous schools, libraries, community centers, and parks, and instituted hiring freezes.

None of it was enough, so San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed pushed through a sweeping ballot measure limiting pensions for new employees, giving current city workers a choice of contributing more or accepting lower benefits and paying higher health premiums.

The public employee unions sued, naturally, and just before Christmas a sympathetic Santa Clara County judge named Patricia Lucas ruled that San Jose could not alter the pensions of current employees, even if they’ve been on the job for a day. The city could cut salaries, if it wanted, but that is much more difficult.

Notwithstanding the fact that Reed has been elected and re-elected with huge majorities and that his pension reform measure passed with 70 percent voter approval—or that the city charter specifically allows for altering pension plans—Lucas ruled that San Jose had run afoul of the concept of “vested rights.”

This dubious doctrine, formulated by the state Supreme Court in a 1978 case, holds that pensions are a “vested contractual right.” This precedent means that the most irresponsible city councils or boards of supervisors ever elected can saddle California municipalities were unfunded liabilities 40 or 50 years into the future. It essentially negates the idea of elective democracy. Gray Davis was recalled by the voters, in part, because of his mismanagement. But his fiscal decisions live on indefinitely (protected in this case by a judge he appointed).

Left-leaning Democrats express dismay that only one-fifth of Americans self-identify as “liberal.” Treating this as a public relations problem, Democrats run ads accusing Republicans of hostility to working people and immigrants—or of racism—and try cute tricks such as substituting the word “progressive” for “liberal.”

But as Andy Jacobs tried to tell his party for half a century, there’s nothing progressive about saddling future Americans with debt because today’s officeholders greedily consume campaign contributions while ignoring the quid pro quo that accompanies them. To paraphrase Jacobs, Chuck Reed—also a Democrat—knows that if the public employees’ unions are against him, he must be doing something right. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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