Why GOP's Freshman Class in Congress Doesn't Always Follow Lead of Its Seniors

JOE SCARBOROUGH likes being out front. In the late 1980s he led a band called ''The Establishment'' that caught the ear of RCA records.

But instead of ending up in New York with a recording contract, he wound up in Washington representing Florida's first district in the great Republican revolution. Now the former member of ''The Establishment'' is trying to cut back the influence of the establishment.

Mr. Scarborough is a quintessential member of the freshman class in Congress: young, ideological, politically inexperienced.

Skeptical of seniority and the institution they now belong to, the GOP class of 1994 is keenly aware of the public anger that washed them into office, to the point of sometimes refusing to follow their own party leaders.

In fact, the question being asked is whether this 73-member class is pulling its party further to the right -- contrary to Democratic charges that the group is made up of mindless Gingrichites.

''An overwhelming majority of Republican freshman are committed to changing the way government operates,'' Mr. Scarborough says in an interview in his spartan office. ''And we have the number of votes to do it.''

They are prepared to deliver crucial votes on the GOP's ''Contract With America.'' But they don't want a watered-down version, and they are forming groups to promote their own agenda for congressional reform and abolishing agencies.

Scarborough has joined with about 40 of his classmates to form a group called ''The New Federalists.'' They meet early in the morning three times a week to discuss plans to eliminate federal agencies and return power to state and local government through block grants.

The Florida freshman talks openly about cutting the Education Department, a plank from his campaign, and hints that his group may also be considering the departments of Energy and Housing and Urban Develompment.

Although most GOP freshman signed on to the Contract during the campaign, and many received support from House Speaker Newt Gingrich's political-action committee, Scarborough claims his class is driven more by the Constitution than the House GOP manifesto.

They say they are driven by the 10th Amendment, which holds that powers not specifically delegated to the federal government are reserved for states or the citizens themselves.

The New Federalists, Scarborough says, take this to mean the federal government has no business being involved in such fields as education, housing, and commerce. An ''erroneous interpretation'' of the 10th amendment during the New Deal era in 1933-34, he says, led Washington to assume functions of the states. ''If we had followed the 10th amendment, with less liberal interpretation, we'd have a balanced budget now,'' he argues.

A key element of the ideology of the GOP freshmen is a distrust of the institution's collective ability to govern responsibly. They turn to the federal deficit as proof of Washington's inability to impose self-discipline.

They know their constituents are angry, which many of them regard as a mandate to oppose even their own leaders in efforts to approve legislation that will curb runaway federal spending and taxation.

Last Friday, two GOP freshman from Illinois, Rep. John Hostettler and Rep. Ray LaHood, rose on the House floor to support a line-item veto. They argued that the ''fiscal crisis'' resulting from 10 years of wasteful spending required Congress to yield more budget power to the president. The debate quickly turned into a generational brawl, with Democrats demanding -- and eventually getting -- an apology for ''insults'' to their years of service.

Earlier, the freshman had played hardball with their own leaders. The Contract proposed a balanced-budget amendment that required a three-fifths majority vote to increase taxes. When that version failed, the freshman immediately went into conference. At least 20 were prepared not to vote for the alternative, which did not contain the tax-limitation provision. To pull the class on board, Speaker Gingrich promised to hold hearings on a constitutional amendment requiring a three-fifths vote for tax increases next spring.

Is the class that Gingrich nurtured during the campaign and then gave unprecedented committee assignments getting out ahead of him? Mr. Hostettler says no: ''The relationship between the class and the leadership is give and take. But each member is independent, and we have to be concerned about how we'll be perceived back home.''

''There will be a struggle between the centralization of power and individualism in the House,'' says James Thurber, a political scientist at American University in Washington. ''These freshman feel they have truth on their side.''

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