As the word spread quickly on Saturday that former Rep. James Traficant, Ohio Democrat, died following a tractor accident on his farm, the national press recalled the obvious things about the Youngstown lawmaker who was inarguably the most outrageous member of Congress during his service from 1984-2002.
But one has to dig somewhat deeper to learn that, for all of his antics and the controversy that surrounded him, Traficant did achieve one legislative feat that was far-reaching and could even be called revolutionary: a restraint on the powers and reach of the Internal Revenue Service.
Profiles of Traficant (who was 73 at the time of his death) noted that he was the second U.S. representative since the Civil War to be expelled from office. This came on July 24, 2002, soon after the conviction in federal court on charges of racketeering, taking bribes, filing false tax returns, and forcing his congressional staffers to do personal chores that would send Traficant to prison for the next seven years.
"I'm prepared to lose everything. I'm prepared to go to jail," Traficant told a hushed House, as colleagues prepared to cast a vote that would deny him his congressional pension and lifetime health insurance. "You go ahead and expel me."
They did, by a vote of 420-1 (the one "no" vote being cast by California's Democratic Rep. Gary Condit, who was involved in a scandal of his own that would eventually finish his career).
And all of the Traficant obituaries highlighted the qualities that made every reporter who knew the lawmaker known as "Jimbo" agree he was a delight to cover: his unkempt pompadour which he claimed was cut with a weed whacker (it turned out to be a toupee), his denim suits and skinny ties, and his hilarious one-minute speeches on the House floor, which he inevitably closed with the line from the "Star Trek" TV series: "Beam me up!"
Traficant had held a grudge against the IRS going back to his days as Mahoning County (Youngstown) sheriff, when he successfully (and incredibly) won acquittal on a sting operation in which he was taped accepting cash bribes from undercover agents. He was simply conducting his own investigation, Traficant told the jury in 1983, and they believed him.
In winning the case, non-attorney Traficant made history of sorts by becoming the only person ever to win a Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations ACT (RICO) case while representing himself.
The spectacular trial and verdict was also key to catapulting Traficant into the House in 1984, making him the only Democrat to unseat a Republican House member in a year in which Ronald Reagan won a landslide re-election.
In Congress, he repeatedly introduced legislation to curb the reach and enforcement powers of the revenue agents. When Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, Rep. Bill Archer (R.-Tex.), incoming chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, pledged his support to Traficant's proposed IRS reforms.
In July, 1998, following passage with bipartisan support from both houses of Congress, President Bill Clinton signed IRS reform legislation. It included a provision crafted by Traficant to shift the burden of proof from the taxpayer to the IRS.
"And just look at the number of cases the IRS is bringing against the taxpayer — it’s way down!" Traficant told a luncheon of conservatives on Capitol Hill a year later. The audience included then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R.-Texas, who vigorously led the applause for Traficant.
The '97 IRS legislation included a second Traficant proposal that severely limited the seizure authority of the IRS. This included a requirement that the IRS obtain a court order and provide a 15-day notice before seizing anyone's residence.
This portion of the bill also allowed taxpayers to exclude from their gross income calculation any damages they are awarded in a federal court proceeding related to IRS misconduct.
Separately, Traficant also secured passage of legislation requiring sensitivity training program for IRS agents and increasing the penalty for IRS agent misconduct from $100,000 to $1 million.
In the coming days, James Traficant will surely be remembered as a engaging rogue who made Congress a livelier place. But he should also be remembered for something more substantive, at least as far as taxpayers are concerned.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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