When House colleagues and reporters who covered former Rep. Bill Zeliff, R-N.H., learned he had died on Oct. 18, there was plenty to recall about the one-time innkeeper and three-term lawmaker.
Zeliff, who was 85, was remembered for his infectious good nature, his love of constituent service, and his bloodhound-style tenacity in congressional investigations.
The Granite State lawmaker emerged as the GOP point man in a 1995 probe of the 1993 siege by government agents on a compound of the Branch Davidian religious sect in Waco, Texas.
When the compound burned to the ground, 75 people were dead, including 25 children. Several who were involved in the investigation felt the FBI went too far in its pursuit of the charismatic Davidian leader David Koresh, and that it resulted in too much bloodshed.
Zeliff’s desire to learn what happened and why was evident in his sedulous questioning of the late Attorney General Janet Reno and then-FBI Director Louis Freeh.
But the New Hampshire politician was best remembered as the co-sponsor of a measure 27 years ago that might have changed history by ending the national debt.
Described by media reports as “brash” in 1994, when it was introduced by Zeliff and co-sponsored by Democrat Rep. Rob Andrews of New Jersey, the “A to Z Spending Cuts Plan” would have required the Appropriations Committee to reduce the 13 annual appropriations bills to one.
Under the proposal, lawmakers would then have been permitted 56 hours of debate by the full House on what programs to keep and not keep, followed by an up-or-down vote on the remaining funding in the lone appropriations bill.
As he was resigning from Congress in 2014, Andrews told The Conservative Digest how 20 years earlier, Zeliff “came up to me on the House floor and said: ‘Let’s do something about deficit reduction. Your last name begins with A and mine begins with Z. You’re a Democrat, and I’m a Republican. Will you co-sponsor this bill?'”
Andrews did, and soon the two were making the rounds of television talk shows and cities across America to line up support for “A to Z.”
Minnesota Rep. Tim Penny, a vigorous backer of deficit reduction, worked hard to line up fellow Democrats in the House to support the measure. Ross Perot, who had made deficit reduction a top issue in his independent bid for president in 1992, also weighed in strongly for “A to Z.”
But no one in the House hierarchy would let the measure come to a vote, so to get “A to Z” from the House Rules Committee to the full House, signatures from 218 members of Congress were needed on a discharge petition.
Andrews, Zeliff, and their allies managed to muster 204 signatures. Both co-sponsors strongly believed that House leaders were terrified of a proposal that would reduce or even eliminate funding for government programs.
“It would have put on the table all of the spending — entitlements, discretionary, all of it,” Zeliff told me.
Born in East Orange, New Jersey, Zeliff graduated from the University of Connecticut and served in the Connecticut Army National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve.
Zeliff deployed his engaging personal style as a salesman and marketing manager for the Delaware-based E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company. But in 1976, he and his wife Sydna decided to settle in Jackson, New Hampshire, and opened the Christmas Farm Inn.
Active in Republican politics, Zeliff once recalled to The Conservative Digest how in 1982, “this engineer I never met before came into the inn and said, ‘I’m John Sununu, and I’m running for governor. I want your support.'”
He got it. The innkeeper hosted events, walked precincts, and spoke for Sununu — who narrowly topped six opponents in the Republican primary. In an upset, Sununu went on to unseat Democrat Gov. Hugh Gallen and served six years in the governor’s office.
In 1990, when Republican Rep. Bob Smith announced for the U.S. Senate, seven Republicans competed for nomination in his Manchester-based 1st District.
But there were really only two heavyweight contenders: Zeliff, a favorite of the business establishment, and former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Commerce Larry Brady, a hero among conservatives for exposing how U.S. technology shared with the Soviet Union was used to help Russian invaders in Afghanistan.
Zeliff got a major boost when his friend Sununu — then-White House chief of staff under President George H.W. Bush — arrived at an event for the innkeeper and made it clear who he and wife Nancy were supporting.
Friendship notwithstanding, Sununu — a strong abortion opponent — disappointed more than a few conservatives by backing the pro-choice Zeliff over Brady (who shared Sununu’s pro-life stand).
Zeliff eked out a win by 314 votes out of more than 40,000 cast.
After three terms, Rep. Zeliff lost a bid for the Republican nomination for governor to State Board of Education President Ovide Lamontagne. The contest focused on the abortion issue, with Lamontagne’s pro-life stance key to his primary victory.
As almost all of those who remembered the “A to Z” measure agreed, Bill Zeliff was an envoy from an era in which there was still a spirit of bipartisanship in Congress and a desire to get something consequential accomplished.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for The Conservative Digest. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.