Congress Spenders Held to Account
Southern `moderates,' especially Texans, bring pork home while GOP pinches pennies
WASHINGTON — CONGRESS has big spenders - and tight-fisted savers. But who's who?
The National Taxpayers Union Foundation (NTUF), after an 18-month study, now has the answers for all 535 members of Congress, and they may surprise you.
The Senate's king-of-spending, for example, is not Washington's most celebrated liberal, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, but a not-so-famous Southern moderate, J. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana. A champion of the oil and gas industries, Senator Johnston battles for any government largess that can boost the economy of his home state.
In the House, the contest was close, but two Texas Democrats won the prize for top spenders - Jim Chapman of Sulphur Springs and Frank Tejeda of San Antonio. In fact, Texans were often the most generous with federal dollars, with Henry Gonzalez (D) placing fourth, and E. ``Kika'' de la Garza (D) coming in 11th.
Democrats clearly took the big spending honors in both houses. Among senators, Democrats grabbed all but one of the top 57 places. Among representatives, Democrats occupy 95 of the top 100 spots for hefty spending.
Paul Hewitt, executive director of the NTUF, led the effort to develop the new congressional spending measurement, called VoteTally. His goal: to make members on Capitol Hill more accountable to voters.
VoteTally, which Mr. Hewitt says will be constantly updated, will be available nationwide to anyone with access to CompuServe, the country's largest on-line computer system. Developing the software and entering the data was a massive project which, if printed out, would fill three Manhattan telephone books, Hewitt says.
The project should be a mother lode of information for journalists, political scientists, and voters. But Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says VoteTally could be especially useful for political challengers who want to skewer the big spenders on Capitol Hill in the next campaign.
Hewitt's study shows that things are not always what they seem in Congress. For example, he points to the Conservative Democratic Forum, a supposedly middle-of-the-road group of congressmen mostly from the South.
When the 52 members of the forum are plugged into VoteTally, it indicates that on average they favored increasing federal outlays by $42.8 billion - a sum hardly different than the $43 billion of the liberal Congressional Black Caucus.
Indeed, the House's No. 1 spender, Representative Chapman, is a member of the conservative forum. So is No. 5 spender Tom Bevill of Alabama, No. 6 Robert Cramer of Alabama, No. 8 Pete Peterson of Florida, and No. 10 George ``Buddy'' Darden of Georgia.
A quick explanation for these big-spending Southerners is that they favor national defense, as well as megaprojects like the space station and the superconducting super collider. But Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, who backs the same defense and science projects, still voted to cut overall spending by $33 billion, unlike his Democratic colleagues.
The NTUF analysis could put new pressure on Congress, Democrats say. One Capitol Hill staffer, who says his boss was ``disappointed'' with his own performance in the NTUF study, says Democrats may be forced to take more seriously Republican and conservative Democratic proposals to cut the budget, rather than rejecting many of them out of hand.
Rep. Dick Zimmer (R) of New Jersey had the third best record in the House for cutting the deficit - something he says he is proud of. He told the Monitor in an interview:
``I have made no bones to my constituents that if they want someone to bring home the bacon, they've got the wrong guy. I can serve their best interests by keeping their money in their pockets in New Jersey, and shrinking the federal pie in Washington.''
Dr. Mann says the major effect of VoteTally and other spending studies may be long term. If big spenders find they have to spend days explaining their votes to journalists and at public meetings,``they might alter their behavior over time,'' he says.
Mr. Zimmer puts it more bluntly. He says he hopes the NTUF study will prevent some members from ``talking conservative at home and voting for the big spending in Washington.''