Bob Livingston Broke the Mold for Pelican State Lawmakers

Article excerpt

When he first ran for Congress his district was 3 percent Republican; today it is the most Republican in Louisiana. And Rep. Livingston is now the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

When asked to describe his political beliefs, 53-year-old Rep. Bob Livingston, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, replies: "In a word . . . conservative." He was only the third Republican congressman from Louisiana in 100 years when he was sent to Congress in a 1977 special election. At 6 feet 4 inches in height, Livingston is one of the tallest men on Capitol Hill; he's also one of the most personable. Among other honors, Livingston repeatedly has won the Watchdog of the Treasury Award of the National Associated Businessmen, and the Leadership Award from the prodefense Coalition for Peace Through Strength.

Insight: What should Congress be doing right now?

Bob Livingston: Eliminating duplication, inefficiency and waste in the federal government. We have nearly 300 job-training programs, for example, and we have to anticipate that we can do with 40 or 50.

There are 267 youth-at-risk programs and 48 nutrition programs in the various agencies--examples of the overlap and redundancy of this government!

Our [ballistic-missile] defense is lacking badly in needed preparation for the future. We can have an effective missile defense only if we have a president who has the political will to deploy it. This president doesn't exhibit that kind of political will.

Insight: What do you say to people who charge that Republican budget-cutting programs take food from hungry kids and prevent the poor from getting an education?

BL: Every [government] program has its good purpose, based on fine intentions. But the cumulative cost is destroying us.... It's out of control and getting worse.

If we do our job cleanly and efficiently, we can get more money for these children, more money for the people truly in need and save money for the taxpayer.

The average American family sent 5 percent of its income to Washington during the years right after World War II. Today, it is 25 percent. That's intolerable and it's one of the reasons we have more poor and indigent.

Insight: Will Republicans in the 105th Congress be able to work with President Clinton?

BL: To work with him closely, one has to trust him. That's going to be difficult. This is one of the most talented, gregarious people ever to occupy the White House. He's a very likable person. But it has not taken any of us long to understand he tells us only what he thinks we want to hear. Then he goes and does what he wants. This does not engender a great deal of trust.

Insight: Is the Republican Congress managing to slow federal spending?

BL: We have saved $50 billion and eliminated 297 [federal] programs under my guidance of the Appropriations Committee.

I believe we cannot balance the budget with the discretionary funding alone. We've got two-thirds of a budget that is mandatory. Without tackling those mandates substantially--more than we've done so far--frankly, we cannot get the balanced budget.

It used to be that our first priority under the Constitution was to protect the security of the nation, of the people. Now our first priority is to pay the interest on the bonds, on the debt. The interest on the debt is $245 billion a year.

It is my goal, and I probably won't be around when we do it, to see that $245 billion virtually eliminated. Until we do, we are not doing justice to our children.

Insight: You were a successful attorney both in private and public practice in Louisiana. How did you happen to decide to try for Congress?

BL: I hated [private] practice of law; I liked public service. A friend saw the newspaper headlines that Eddy Hebert, the venerable congressman for 36 years in [Louisiana's] 1st District, was retiring [in the mid-1970s] and he said `Why don't you run for that?'

I said "I don't even live in that district. but would I be interested? Yes, if you'll help me raise money and if I can get some assistance in moving across town, I would be interested in the job."

And with that, in the next two weeks I quit my job, moved myself across town; my campaign had $5,000 in the bank --from myself It took three months to get the promised contribution from that guy.

I lost by 3 percent in 1976. [The following year, Livingston won in a special election held because the Democrat who won the year before went to jail for vote fraud.] I won by 12 percent, and I ended up with 15 percent of the black vote. I was pretty proud of that and it helped me over the top.

I went after it, campaigned in black neighborhoods, on black radio. [My opponent] was a skilled young debater, much younger than I was, and he challenged me after the primaries to debate anytime, anywhere and then went off to the [state] Legislature, where he served.

So I put together some forums in the black community. When he didn't show up I accused him of taking their vote for granted. I had a bunch of good guys in the black community working hard for me.

Insight: In a sentence or two, how would you sum up your political philosophy?

BL: I believe in less government. I believe that the individual is paramount, and that government ought to leave people free to help themselves without intruding on the rights of the neighbors, but that government plays a role for helping people do those things people can't do for themselves.

A book that really inspired me to get into politics was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I really do believe that one person can make a difference. I grow frustrated with government processes. When the Republicans in Congress lapse too much into process rather than substance, I get antsy.

I am not a processor. I want to accomplish good deeds and go on to the next one. I believe that one wastes a great deal of time by talking too much about process.

Insight: How would you describe politics in Louisiana? To an outsider, political life in the Pelican State seems like politics in no other place in America.

BL: There's an old joke that was passed onto me by an FBI agent as I was walking with him to the trial of a Louisiana attorney general. He turned to me on the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans, and said "Bob, the people of Louisiana will not tolerate corruption!"

In view of where we were going, I thought this was kind of odd. So I looked hard at him, and he says, "They demand it!"

I always describe [Louisiana politics] by saying, it is Cook County, III., politics, only it's statewide. Chicago politics is about the same as Louisiana politics.

Louisiana has a zest for life. We play hard and we fight hard. You can't be--well, it is hard to be a successful shy politician in Louisiana.

Insight: Times change, though, even in Louisiana.

BL: Yes. When I first ran, my district was 3 percent Republican and today it is is the most Republican in the state. It is 35 to 40 percent Republican. St. Tammany Parish [in Livingston's district], which had no Republicans when I started is about to be a plurality Republican parish.

I've done my job in proselytizing! I believe in it. A strong two-party system is good for the state. I've fought the good-old-boy network; I've not been a part of it.

Insight: Would you share any wisdom you have about getting things done in Congress?

BL: I am an institutionalist, and [Rep.] Dave Obey [Wisconsin Democrat], my counterpart on the Appropriations Committee, is as well. He's a hard-core liberal and I'm a relatively hard-core conservative. Philosophically, we probably agree on very little; institutionally, we agree on a great deal. He is an honorable man.

On the [House] floor, he's a fire-breather; that's business. I might respond in kind and rip him to shreds, but again that's business. It's not personal. Unfortunately, some of our members on both sides lose the perspective of this dividing line. They don't understand the necessity of maintaining the dividing line between what's business and personal.

RELATED ARTICLE: Personal Bio

Occupation: Congressman, 1st District, Louisiana; first elected in a special election in 1977. Has been elected to 10 successive terms with an average vote of 66 percent.

Born: April 30, 1943.

Education: Tulane University, undergraduate and law degrees. Active duty, U.S. Navy, 1961-63.

Family: Wife, Bonnie Robichaux; three sons and a daughter.

Favorite Relaxation: "There is nothing nicer than going home and, if it's spring, putting up my hammock and getting my newspapers and magazines and books, and spending the day."

What Do You Read? "Well, I can't say I read everything Newt Gingrich assigns to me."

What Are You Reading Now? "Stephen Amrbose's Undaunted Courage. It's about the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Favorite Movies: "Rock 'em, sock 'em action movies. I really liked The Rock."