One man's crusade to cure Congress of pork-barrel practices

When the House of Representatives pushed through a bill to start 43 new water projects costing at least $4.4 -billion to complete, a disgruntled Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R) of Massachusetts donned a pig mask in protest.

''They had their schnozzles right in the trough,'' he said of his colleagues, who passed the measure on a voice vote hours before recessing for Columbus Day.

But the bill is not only a defeat for Mr. Conte. It also is one more setback for another House member who for seven years has made himself a human barricade against water projects.

While others in Congress maneuver behind the scenes for dams, deeper ports, and reservoirs for the home districts, Rep. Bob Edgar (D) of Pennsylvania is a new breed of lawmaker. A Methodist minister who came to Congress in the wake of the Watergate scandal, he rejects the old-boy network of you-vote-for-my-project-and-I'll-vote-for-yours.

So when the appropriations bill for 43 new water projects in 24 states came to the House floor, he was there to oppose it, even though it would benefit his own state. He offered an amendment to delete 20 projects, including all three for Pennsylvania, because they had slipped past without the normal authorizing process.

It's a matter of ''principle,'' according to the Pennsylvania Democrat. He aims at breaking up the time-honored way by which Congress selects water projects - according to who has the most clout. Instead he wants Congress to wait until it completes a bill outlining a nationwide water strategy including 200 projects, and then vote the funding.

Mr. Edgar's colleagues lined up last week to oppose his amendment and defend their projects.

''Ladies and gentlemen, there are people in Oklahoma today who do not have a glass of water,'' said Rep. Wes Watkins (D), holding up a water glass as he argued for construction of the Parker Reservoir, which would serve his hometown of Ada, Okla.

Others told of the vital need for flood control in Texas and a harbor project in Cleveland. And Rep. Jamie L. Whitten (D) of Mississippi, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and an acknowledged master of securing federal grants for his home district, announced, ''We are taking care of the country's needs in this bill.''

Predictably, the Edgar amendment went down on a vote of 133 to 271.

''I consider today my Don Quixote day,'' Edgar said just after the vote. He did not seem discouraged by the loss, even though he conceded that it showed a return to old habits.

''My job is to be a national congressman, to care about my district, but not to do it at the expense of the rest of the nation,'' he says. While chairman Whitten often has warned that a congressman who fails to bring home federal funding had best not go home, Edgar has little fear of his constituents.

''They've elected me five times,'' he says, and that in a district which, until he ran, had voted for Republicans since before the Civil War. He calls his crusade ''good politics'' for his district, explaining, ''They know they've paid a lot of money for projects that have little value.''

One reason his unorthodox approach works is that such projects traditionally have gone to the West and South. Edgar fights many water projects on grounds that they would damage the environment. But his other big complaint is that while funding these projects, Uncle Sam has short-changed the Northeast and Midwest.

However, Edgar has not been satisfied merely with attracting more money northward. His aim, he says, is ''to get fairness and equity in the distribution.''

He proved true to that aim last week when he opposed appropriating funds for rebuilding two locks on the Monongahela River in Pennsylvania as well as new locks for the Ohio River in West Virginia.

Having an ''orderly process'' for public-works projects would help his district in the long term, he maintains.

That process includes first passing a water project authorization bill, now in committee, which Edgar praises as a compromise between project supporters and environmentalists. It also includes, for the first time, a requirement for local cost-sharing and money to repair aging water systems in the Northeast.

Still, Edgar pledges to continue tilting at windmills. He says he will try to head off the bill in the Senate, with help from allies there, or else hope for a veto.

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