Few people remember now, but there was a time when the House Ways and Means chairman was a figure of titanic significance--often second in power only to the president himself. In January 1963, the committee's Democratic chairman, Wilbur Mills, was featured on the cover of Time magazine. (Mills was powerful enough to block, almost singlehandedly, the creation of Medicare for several years.) The next great Ways and Means chairman was another Democrat, Dan Rostenkowski, a Washington institution known as much for his steak-and-martini consumption as for being at the center of such epic Capitol battles as the 1983 Social Security reform, the 1986 tax reform, and the 1993 Clinton budget plan.
When Republicans took control of the House in 1994, they imposed six-year term limits on the chairmanships of Ways and Means and every other committee. Chairmen today simply don't have the time to establish themselves as warlords like Mills, who served for 18 years, and Rostenkowski, who served for 14. It takes a few years to make a legislative mark--or to get your face among the political-celebrity caricatures that adorn the walls of the Palm steakhouse.