Deliberate, discreet and conservative, Wilbur Mills is the archetype of the powerful congressman. As chairman of the pivotal House Ways and Means Committee, he is far better known in the halls of the Capitol than in the hurly-burly of public debate. As Congress’s preeminent authority on all facets of taxation, his influence reaches far beyond Washington. Thus as vice-chairman of a House-Senate committee investigating President Nixon’s tax returns, his prediction seemed all the more shocking: when an analysis of the President’s returns is made public, Mills said, Mr. Nixon will surely resign.
Mills, a normally stolid 64, actually seems to relish the furor he has caused. Leaning back in his chair and peering over his trifocals like a country lawyer, a role he still enjoys, the congressman carefully chooses his phrases. “I never called on the President to resign,” he says with a smile. “I have said I thought he would…if we find he owes a lot of additional taxes.” While he stops short of revealing what the investigation has turned up, he doesn’t hesitate to drop ominous hints. “I’m convinced we won’t find a refund for him,” Mills says wryly. Quoting unofficial estimates of hundreds of thousands of tax dollars due, he speculates that the country wouldn’t tolerate the discovery of “say, 20 mistakes” on the presidential returns now under scrutiny. He believes the public outrage could become so great that Republican politicians will pressure the President to resign in order to save their own hides. “There are many, many people with a lot less income that have paid more taxes during these four years than he has, and it galls them a lot,” says Mills. “A lot of people say they’d already be in the penitentiary had they paid no more on their incomes than he barely paid on his.” Then the lawyer in Mills intervenes. “But that’s just their opinions,” he says. “No facts to go by yet.”
It is customary for the Internal Revenue Service to send agents to help members of Congress with their returns, but Mills gives his little to do. The congressman takes only a standard deduction on his $42,500 salary, and does not itemize his returns. “He tells me I’m losing a lot of money,” Mills says, “but I don’t want to go to the trouble of explaining anything later.” Actually, money is not very important to Mills in maintaining his spartan lifestyle. He wears ready-made suits, and is proud of the fact he’s done practically no traveling outside the country. He and his wife share a modest two-bedroom Washington apartment, and he is considered a virtual recluse in the party-conscious capital. “When I first came here,” he says, “a committee chairman told me never to go to those embassy parties. He said ‘All they want to do is make you half tight and get information from you.’ So I don’t go.”
For amusement Mills reads tax reports, although he sheepishly admits to watching Sonny and Cher on television. Unlike most congressmen, he refuses payment for his many speeches and articles, even though he and Mrs. Mills are feeling the pinch of inflation enough to have cut back on “fancy eating.” “We had hot dogs the other day,” he says, “and I hate hot dogs except between meals and at football games.”
Although the White House has criticized Mills for commenting on the President’s taxes even before the investigation is completed, observers are cautiously weighing his motives. One theory holds that Mills, who believes there is a strong possibility of televised hearings on the returns, has spoken out to prevent committee members friendly to Mr. Nixon from down-playing the investigation’s findings. Mills is clearly appalled by the President’s tax situation. “There is some harm in [Nixon’s] remaining in office,” Mills says. “He’s putting most of his time to his own problem, rather than the problems of the country. That means the country is more or less drifting—economic drifting, as well as drifting in other senses.”
Mills says he has not yet made up his own mind whether he would vote for impeachment. But, he says, “just this one thing alone [Nixon’s taxes] might be sufficient on the basis of certain facts to sway my view.” Of his House colleagues, Mills told an interviewer, “there’s no doubt in my mind that there are enough votes for the articles of impeachment.”
Actually Mills is surprised the President hasn’t quit already. “You have to admire a person who doesn’t run from troubles,” he observes. “He’s not a coward. He stands up and tries to fight. I think he’s done that, but whether it’s good judgment or not is what I’m talking about. I have a great deal of sympathy for anybody who gets himself into this kind of a fix. I don’t know that I could stand the pressure the man will go through from now until the election.”