WASHINGTON - The man who could soon become acting chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee takes a dim view of tax-exempt private-activity bonds.
That's the word from congressional aides who have worked over the years with Rep. Sam M. Gibbons, D-Fla., the second-highest ranking Democrat on the panel behind its beleaguered chairman, Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois.
In the past month, speculation has increased that Rostenkowski may be indicted shortly on charges of using the House Post Office to embezzle government money. House rules require any chairman under indictment to step aside until cleared, meaning Gibbons would automatically become acting chairman.
That prospect has thrown a spotlight on the 73-year-old Gibbons, who has quietly represented Florida's 11th Congressional District for the past 30 years.
In 24 years on the Ways and Means Committee, Gibbons has voiced no objections to public-purpose bonds but has maintained a steady opposition to private-activity bonds, congressional aides say. In general, he has done so without fighting openly or aggressively for curbs, they say.
He did wage a campaign in 1987 against bonds issued by Indian tribes, and in 1989 he tried to strip proposals for bond extensions out of a Ways and Means tax bill.
Before the Tax Reform Act of 1986 placed strict curbs on private-activity bonds, Gibbons "was not particularly a friend" of such bonds, because he viewed them "as an expensive way of getting revenue," said one aide. Even with the 1986 restrictions, "I still don't think he's the friendliest" toward private-activity bonds, the aide added.
"I have heard him rant and rave about them," said another aide.
Lobbyists who follow Ways and Means Committee proceedings used words like "unpredictable," "opinionated," and " difficult to describe Gibbons. They also said he seems to take little interest in tax issues, preferring trade matters. Gibbons, in fact, is the chairman of the Ways and Means panel's subcommittee on trade.
But there is on tax issue about which Gibbons is passionate: the value-added tax. He is well known on Capitol Hill for being a strong supporter of such a levy, which would amount to a national sales tax.
State and local governments oppose the idea of a VAT because it would compete with their own sales taxes and also because they themselves might be subject to it.
Gibbons' most visible foray into the municipal arena came in 1987, when news reports described several questionable bond transaction undertaken by Indian tribes. Gibbons complained to the Treasury Department that the tribes were taking advantage of a loophole in the law governing Indian bonds that allowed them to use proceeds to acquire investment-type property.
Largely at Gibbons' urging, Congress that year passed legislation holding that revenues from private-activity bonds issued by Indian tribes can be used only for facilities that are on the reservation and are owned and operated by the tribe.
A little-known incident in 1989 also points up Gibbons' dislike of private-activity bonds.
The tax exemptions for mortgage revenue bonds and small-issue industrial development bonds were scheduled to expire at the end of that year, and in July 1989 Rostenkowski unveiled a tax package that included two-year extensions for the two exemptions.
During a closed-door meeting of the committee to consider the package, Gibbons said the bond extensions should be dropped. He reportedly questioned whether any committee members really cared about the two exemptions and challenged members to come forward and defend them.
Several members did so, and in the end the committee voted over-whelmingly to defeat Gibbons proposal.
Since then, Gibbons has expressed his opposition to private-activity bonds more quietly, by refusing to sign on in support of bills to make the mortgage bond and IDB exemptions permanent. But as of Tuesday when the new tax law was enacted, the two bond tax breaks were renewed and are now permanent.
Despite Gibbons' low profile, "there no mistaking the fact that he has traditionally been an antagonist toward public finance," said one housing lobbyist.
But this year, at least, Gibbons has also shown support for tax-exempt financing when it would benefit his constituents.
In May, after the Ways and Means panel approved a modified version of President Clinton's tax package, Rostenkowski asked committee members to submit their favorite tax proposals for inclusion in a possible second tax bill.
Gibbons offered a proposal to create a new category of exempt-facility bond that would be used to finance the construction and improvement of space centers, such as Cape Canaveral in Florida.
"Spaceport" bonds would be treated under the tax code in the same way as airport bonds, which are exempt from the private-activity volume cap. The Ways and Means Committee has held hearings on the tax proposals but has taken no other actions.
Several lobbyists said it is questionable whether Gibbons would have much opportunity to translate his dislike for private-activity bonds into legislation. Rostenkowski will still wield influence over the panel, even if he is relegated to the background, they said.
"in an interim or acting capacity, Gibbons' options will be severely constrained because Rostenkowski is still going to be a major power in the committee," said on lobbyist.
But if Rostenkowski is convicted of a crime and Gibbons is chosen as the permanent chairman, he would have plenty of opportunity to put his stamp on bonds, the lobbyist said.