The Message in What He Didn't Say

WASHINGTON - What people don't say often says more than what they do say.

That certainly was the case with Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., when he spoke after receiving the Public Securities Association's distinguished public service award at its first annual awards dinner a week ago.

Such events are not guaranteed to be news makers, especially when a group gives a self-serving award, but the recipient usually sings for his supper by speaking about some topic or legislation of interest to his audience.

Rep. Rostenkowski, chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, often has discussed taxes and bonds in previous speeches to the PSA and other public finance groups, and was expected to touch on those subjects again in an address many thought would keep the PSA audience of 500 on the edges of their seats.

PSA members would have been keenly interested in hearing about the prospects for a tax bill this year, an extension for mortgage bonds and small-issue industrial development bonds, Rep. Rostenkowski's tax simplification measure, or plans to curb future abuses in bidding for government securities. But Rep. Rostenkowski said nothing about any of those topics and devoted his speech to criticizing the inability of Congress to deal with the deficit.

What he left out of his speech speaks volumes.

By failing to discuss taxes and bonds, Rep. Rostenkowski sent a clear message that passage of a tax bill is very unlikely this year, which would mean mortgage bonds and IDBs will expire and the tax simplification proposals that include easing some of the bond curbs will have to wait until next year.

If Rep. Rostenkowski's signal to the PSA wasn't apparent, he delivered an even stronger message to mayors in a closed-door session later in the week, in which he said the odds are 9-to-1 against a tax bill this year.

But he left the door slightly ajar to a tax bill when he told the mayors the Bush administration will have to sign on to a tax bill if expiring provisions, such as mortgage bonds and IDBs, are to be extended this year. He also said Congress will have to agree not to turn any bill into a "Christmas tree" weighted down with special interest provisions, and Ways and Means members will have to be convinced a tax bill is needed.

What he didn't say, but should be clear to the public finance community is: If you want mortgage bonds and IDBs extended and some of the bond curbs eased, then you better move quickly and start lobbying the White House, Republicans, and Democrats to agree on a narrowly focused tax measure or all will be lost for this year.

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