When E.F. Hutton Talks, People Listen

The brokerage firm E.F. Hutton engineered perhaps one of the most indelible advertising campaigns of the late 1970s and early ‘80s.

E.F. Hutton’s commercials depicted people out for a jog, aboard a train, at a dinner party or even theatre directors conversing off-stage amid a raucous, Shakespearean sword fight. The conversation would inevitably turn to the stock market. And that’s when one person would say to the other “My broker is E.F. Hutton. And E.F. Hutton says….”

Those words were like uttering an incantation. Once said, the rest of the world would fall silent. Joggers would halt in mid-stride. Commuters on board the train would put down their newspapers. Dinner guests would cease passing the green bean casserole. Even the clanging swords of theatric duelists would stop. Everything came to a screeching halt. For everyone clamored to hear the sage advice of the legendary E.F. Hutton.

The commercials all ended with the same, poignant tag line: “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

Such was the case on Tuesday when former Vice President Dick Cheney descended upon Capitol Hill for a series of closed-door meetings with House and Senate Republicans. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) summoned Cheney to the halls of Congress to discuss the half-trillion dollars in automatic defense cuts set to take effect early next year unless Congress acts.

McKeon and others have warned of grave military cuts for months now, fretting about severe consequences to the economy. But that message simply hasn’t gotten through.

“You know I wish I had the voice of thunder to reach everybody,” lamented McKeon. “People don’t understand how deep and devastating these cuts are going to be.”

But the California Republican believes he may have found his “voice of thunder” in the former vice president.

“What’s that commercial?” queried McKeon during an interview.

“E.F. Hutton,” I responded.

“Yeah, when the vice president speaks, we listen,” proclaimed McKeon.

So now the man who once confessed to radio host Laura Ingraham that he “was honored to be compared to Darth Vader” is likened to E.F. Hutton.

And F. Scott Fitzgerald had the audacity to auger that “there are no second acts in American life?”

Republicans and Democrats alike fear the crush of these defense cuts. The country is now well-focused on the presidential sweepstakes. But Congress has to grapple with the consequences of the defense cuts soon. They can’t wait until next year. That’s why Republicans are turning up the volume. This comes as the House is poised to pass a bill requiring a blueprint of the Pentagon reductions. The Armed Services Committee holds a hearing about the defense cuts this morning. Plus, the House launches its debate on defense spending for next year.

So what can Dick Cheney articulate that other Republicans can’t?

Rep. Pete Roskam (R-IL), the GOP’s Chief Deputy Whip, suggested that Cheney lends credibility.

“Maybe the message isn’t different but the messenger is compelling,” said Roskam. “He had a word of caution and admonition that we needed to be very, very careful about mission readiness if the sequestration happened.”

There’s that word. Sequestration. That’s the term that seems to put everyone to sleep. Which might be why people are struggling to get out the message about the defense cuts.

Some background…

Lawmakers clashed last summer over raising the debt ceiling, the total amount of money the U.S. can statutorily owe. That figure now exceeds $16 trillion. Negotiations by President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to forge a “grand bargain” by making substantial spending cuts and hiking the debt limit fell through. So Congress required mechanism to make at least some cuts in exchange for upping the debt threshold.

Thus the “supercommittee” was born.

House and Senate leaders from both parties commissioned a group of lawmakers to serve on the supercommittee to seek a minimum of $1.1 trillion in spending reductions. The hope was that they could find more, perhaps as much as $4 to $5 trillion in cuts. But there would be a great consequence if the supercommittee failed. Congressional leaders crafted a penalty so onerous that few thought the supercommittee wouldn’t strike a deal. The punishment for failure would be $1.1 trillion in required cuts over the next decade. About half would come from all government spending. But the other half would specifically come from the Pentagon. This is known as the “sequester” – a set of mandatory, across-the-board cuts where Congress would wall off money so it couldn’t be spent. In fact the decision to put the military’s budget into the sequester as part of the debt ceiling package alarmed members of the Armed Services panel. Some demanded an emergency audience with Boehner prior to the final vote.

So it’s a year later. The supercommittee imploded catastrophically and there’s no clear avenue for Congress to “undo” the defense sequester.

Unless people talk about it.

In fact, a key GOP aide who engineered Cheney’s Capitol Hill visit indicated that “(I) expect he’ll get our guys pretty fired up” about solving the sequester riddle.

But no one knew what Cheney might say when he met first with the GOP brass and then with others in a meeting room in the Capitol basement. Of course that spurred some reporters to suggest that the former vice president was huddling with Republicans in an “underground bunker.”

A clutch of reporters staked out Boehner when he entered the Capitol through an obscure entrance for the Cheney meeting. When asked what they might discuss during their session, Boehner only replied “a lot of things.”

One can only presume hunting wasn’t on the agenda.

But it’s not only Republicans who aren’t keen on the mechanized Pentagon cuts.

“We ought not do sequestration,” declared House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), who described the sequester as an “irrational process.”

Still, Hoyer worried about how the GOP might try to eliminate the sequester.

“They wanted to impose fiscal discipline. Now they want to remove that…they want to have it both ways,” said the Maryland Democrat.

Steny Hoyer and Dick Cheney both have held the title of “House Minority Whip.” Cheney was the GOP’s whip for a few months in 1989 before President George H.W. Bush tapped him to become Secretary of Defense. But a chasm yawns between the two men when it comes to politics. Hoyer pulled no punches when asked how the former vice president might guide lawmakers out of the sequestration cul-de-sac.

“His comments over the past three years have been partisan, confrontational and seeking political advantage,” said Hoyer of Cheney.

Buck McKeon later rebuked Hoyer, characterizing that line as a “cheap shot.”

Cheney generally avoided the public eye in the Capitol Tuesday. He met with Senate Republicans over their weekly party luncheon. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) then escorted the former Wyoming Congressman over to the House leadership suite for his meetings with Boehner and others. Cheney then made his way to the Capitol basement for the final conclave of the day with the GOP whip team.

“I think we need to avoid that (the sequester) and I’d like to see the administration be more aggressive than they’ve been,” said Cheney as he walked down the hall. “They  haven’t done anything to date. (Defense Secretary) Leon Panetta is the only voice that I hear speaking what I think is reasonable in terms of this concern.”

But Cheney offered little else.

“That’s it!” I’m out of here!” he said triumphantly, anxious to bolt.

Perhaps that could be expected. Cheney had cut short a fishing trip to caucus with his Republican colleagues. An avid fisherman, it’s no surprise that the vice president’s Secret Service codename was “Angler.”

Like the days of the E.F. Hutton commercials, many Congressional Republicans deferred for a few hours to listen to the vice president about defense cuts.

And now Republicans only hope the public will grant them the E.F. Hutton treatment when they warn of the sequester.