Local obituaries for former Sen. Bill Armstrong, whose memorial service was held Friday, didn’t mention or glossed over his most important political legacy.
In 1981, as President Ronald Reagan took office, he and Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas pushed through an amendment to a major tax bill that established income tax indexing.
It pegs tax rates, the personal exemption and the standard deduction to the cost of living index. Without it, we would all suffer from “bracket creep,” which the government loves if it can get away with it.
The nation suffered two bouts of double-digit inflation between 1974 and 1981, the Tax Foundation noted. Fixed-dollar exemptions and standard deductions protected less of a family’s income from tax.
Every 10 percent rise in prices generated a 16 percent increase in income taxes. That amounted to a real tax increase without a vote in Congress or a presidential signature. It encouraged the Federal Reserve to pursue an inflationary monetary policy.
“Indexing does more to assure tax equity and fairness and to prevent runaway federal spending than anything we’ve ever done,” Armstrong said soon after Bill Clinton became president and rumors had it he might try to eliminate indexing. Happily, he didn’t.
That may not seem like headline-grabbing legislation, but it saved taxpayers billions of dollars.
Armstrong wasn’t a patsy for Reagan, leading conservative opposition to Reagan’s budget in 1981 on grounds it didn’t do enough to cut long-term federal deficits. The administration had to back off a little.
Armstrong was practically the only wealthy Republican — he made money off radio stations, newspapers, mortgage companies and mutual funds — to succeed in Colorado politics in recent decades. Perhaps it was because he refused to spend his own money. If you can’t raise money you’re not winning the support you need, he maintained.
Armstrong became a college president without ever getting a college degree. He attended Tulane, and later the University of Minnesota, but only because he was working at radio stations in New Orleans and Minneapolis. He soon bought KOSI in Denver, then an “easy listening” station. He got rich long before Steve Jobs made dropping out a smart career move.
Many didn’t know about his schooling, or lack of it. Former ambassador and state legislator Sam Zakhem, seeking the GOP nomination in the 6th Congressional District in 1998, condemned two of his rivals for not having college degrees. “How can they serve in Congress with distinction, like Bill Armstrong here, without a college degree?” he asked the Arapahoe County Republican Men’s Club.
Armstrong, in the back of the room, smiled but said nothing.
Degree or not, he was named president of Colorado Christian University in 2006 and served 10 years before announcing his retirement earlier this year. He looked perfectly comfortable in academic gowns.
Armstrong left the Senate in 1990 after two terms, saying he wanted to “praise the Lord, have some fun and make some money.” He did all three. But it was also apparent that he had become bored by committee meetings and the tedium of the governmental process.
He stayed active in politics, being as tough on fellow Republicans as Democrats. He wasn’t necessarily in favor of term limits, but if a candidate said he would only serve a certain number of terms, Armstrong expected him to honor that pledge.
One candidate who did not was Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo. When he first ran for Congress in 1998, he promised serve only three terms. But after serving two terms he backed away from the promise. Armstrong, more in sorrow than in anger, said Tancredo was “a straight-arrow guy” who had strayed. “He knows it’s not right and he knows it’s not consistent with his own political career and his own life. It’s just not.”
Tancredo ended up serving five terms before bailing.
On the other hand, Armstrong supported former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer, who had promised to serve only three terms when first elected in 1996. Schaffer soon regretted his decision publicly — party leadership likes to punish the term-limited with lousy committee assignments — but he stuck to his pledge and didn’t seek a fourth term in 2002.
As a result Armstrong went all-out to help Schaffer in his campaign for the GOP Senate nomination in 2004 against brewer Pete Coors. He ran an independent committee that attacked Coors for wanting to lower the drinking age, giving to Democrats and promoting the “homosexual agenda.” Coors’ manager, former Armstrong aide Walt Klein, said he’d never seen his former boss run such a “nasty” campaign.
But when Schaffer lost big, Armstrong immediately sent Coors a note of congratulations and a “substantial’ check. Klein held no grudge and had nothing but kind words for Armstrong at the memorial service Friday.
Armstrong became identified as a member of the religious right long before it was even called that. But on 1995, speaking to the City Club of Denver, he warned about the hazards of membership.
“Those of us who are Christian need to be on guard every minute never to throw the mantle of Jesus Christ over some political idea,” he said. He condemned a recent Texas Republican rally that featured a sign saying a vote for Candidate X was “a vote for God.”
“In my opinion that’s not only bad politics, that’s blasphemy,” Armstrong said. “That’s just wrong. There’s nothing in the Bible that supports that… Those of us who think religion in American life is a significant missing ingredient need to be careful we don’t step over that line…
“Somebody wrote that if they were drowning they’d rather be seen by an agnostic who could swim than a bishop who could not. I think that’s right.
“We must be scrupulous, always scrupulous, in our protection of the rights of those who disagree with us.”