WASHINGTON -- When newly married Kay Bailey Hutchison left Houston for Dallas in the late 1970s, she discovered that she had become something of a desperate housewife.
The meticulous and pulled-together future U.S. senator had her finances in order, including the individual retirement account she'd started when she was vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
But she got quite a surprise when she tried to add to it.
"I wasn't working," Hutchison said in an interview, "and I was told I couldn't contribute to this." The law restricted homemakers from contributing to IRAs because they were not in the workforce.
"I said, 'This is so wrong,'" said Hutchison, an attorney whose varied career had included time as a television reporter, a Texas House member and a safety board official.
She later was senior vice president and general counsel of Republic Bank and eventually became the state treasurer.
But she never forgot about the housewives.
And when Hutchison made it to the Senate in 1993 -- winning a special election to replace Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, who resigned to become Treasury secretary -- at the top of her legislative shopping list was changing the homemaker IRA.
Hutchison relentlessly pushed for it with senior members of the Texas GOP delegation. And by 1995, aligned with House Majority Leader Dick Armey of North Texas and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer of Houston, she succeeded in getting IRA parity for homemakers.
Before she stepped in, the contribution limit for homemakers had been changed to $250 a year.
Now, nonworking spouses can contribute up to $5,000 a year.
It's a legacy that Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., are honoring with legislation naming the homemaker IRA after Hutchison. The measure sailed through the Senate last week and is pending before the House.
"I would be so honored," Hutchison, R-Texas, said with a smile.
It will almost certainly make the onetime University of Texas cheerleader's name endure. The well-known Roth IRA, for example, allows tax-free withdrawals and was named for the late Sen. William Roth, R-Del.
Hutchison, who is retiring, has an impressive legislative record in her nearly 20 years in the Senate, including phasing out the controversial Wright Amendment, which limits service at Dallas Love Field; fixing the so-called marriage penalty, which taxed married couples at a higher rate; directing millions of dollars to higher education and research at Texas institutions; making state sales taxes an itemized deduction on federal income tax returns; and fighting for NASA dollars and the space program in the face of cutbacks.
"I think history will judge her as one of the greatest legislators we've ever had," said Patrick Oxford, chairman of the Bracewell & Giuliani law firm of Houston and a lifelong friend and supporter of Hutchison's. "She was Lyndon Johnson-level in terms of understanding the legislative process really well."
Oxford and Hutchison attended the University of Texas at Austin as undergraduates and were law school classmates.
Working with Democrats
A hallmark of Hutchison's Senate career has been her willingness to work with Democrats, especially Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., whom Senate wags widely call her BFF (Best Friend Forever).
"When I first came to the Senate 20 years ago, Sen. Hutchison gave me a small briefcase that I still carry to this day. It hasn't worn out, and neither has our friendship," Feinstein said.