Biting the Hands That Elect Them for Some Republican Freshmen, the Crusade of Balancing the Budget Rules out Hometown Pork

Article excerpt

AS a candidate for Congress, Steve Chabot vowed to slash the federal budget. It's not surprising, then, that the freshman Republican from Ohio fought to kill a $2 million transportation grant to the city of Cincinnati.

But this particular crusade left many voters in Congressman Chabot's home district downright stunned. Especially the ones who live in Cincinnati.

In a startling break with tradition, Mr. Chabot and a handful of fellow Republicans in Congress have devoted themselves to balancing the federal budget - even if it means saying no to party leaders and, on occasion, to their own constituents.

If Congress succeeds in its plan to balance the government's books by 2002, these frugal freshmen will be remembered as the pioneers of a new order in Washington: one that frowns on "pork" in the federal budget and encourages cities and states to solve more of their own costly problems.

"There is still too much pork in Congress, but we're heading in the right direction," Chabot says. "Our goal is to convince fellow members that this should be the new standard by which we judge ourselves, not just voting for the parochial interests of our districts."

Already, the pork attack has claimed a few victims. Late last month, a group of renegade Re-publicans, including Chabot, joined Democrats to help derail the defense spending bill.

From the outset, GOP deficit hawks had criticized the fact that the defense bill exceeds the Pentagon's high-end budget request, and contains added billions for dubious weapons systems that would be produced in states and districts held by key Republicans.

According to a Washington-based watchdog group called the Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), last year's budget contained $10 billion in spending that, in their view, was plain-and-simple pork. This year, however, CAGW analysts put the pork tally at just $1 billion.

"The balanced budget has become a political icon," says Tim Penny, a former Democratic congressman from Minnesota. "As a result, pork-barrel spending is viewed among the greatest of sins. These days, you'll see cities and counties demanding less of congressmen. The longstanding relationship with the legislator who helped bring home the bacon is a thing of the past."

To Chabot and his compatriots - among them Wisconsin's Mark Neumann, Florida's Joe Scarborough, Indiana's David MacIntosh, Washington's Linda Smith, and Sam Brownback of Kansas - this change is wholly positive. Cincinnati, Chabot argues, will benefit more in the long run from the growth and prosperity a balanced budget could bring than it would from continued federal handouts.

One man's pork

But one person's pork barrel is another's defensible project. In Cincinnati, many civic leaders criticized Chabot's attempt to eliminate the transportation grants. The $666 million program, which would allow Cincinnati and dozens of other congested cities to study mass-transit options, was inserted in the budget last year, before the Republicans took control of Congress. …