The GOP Paradox: Pigeons vs. Pork

How a lawmaker balances fiscal needs of home district and reducing federal deficit

REP. Peter Blute (R) of Massachusetts considers himself a soldier in the GOP revolution. Young and ideological, he's fiercely in favor of deficit reduction and government restructuring. Yet every time Mr. Blute looks out his 10th floor district office in this red-brick industrial town, he sees a quarry of pigeons he'd like Washington to spend $20 million unnesting.

The coop in question is Union Station, a burned-out marble shell of a building. Urban flora and fowl have claimed the structure for some 25 years, but Blute wants it back - and as a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he just may secure the federal funds needed to help restore Union Station to a thriving train and bus depot.

Thus some may judge Blute a walking paradox. He campaigns against Washington "pork," but still brings home district spending bacon. The reality, however, is more complicated. Many local needs are real, while the federal deficit remains an urgent problem. Finding the proper balance is not an easy exercise. Yet it's one Republicans will now wrestle with daily in meeting rooms across Capitol Hill as they draw up details for the 1996 budget.

Does the congressman, who voted against his party's "crown jewel" tax package because he believes so strongly in balancing the budget, see a contradiction in his efforts to win a slice of the federal pie? Actually, he sees a connection.

"If you want to get the deficit down over time," he says with a shrug, "you have to invest in positive infrastructure."

Blute won his seat in 1992, ousting Democratic veteran Joe Early, who in his 18 years on the Hill earned a reputation as "the king of pork." Since then Blute himself has had some remarkable success in securing pieces of the federal pie. House legislation to reauthorize the Clean Water Act, for example, specifically mentions four cities that would receive direct grants. Largely because of Blute's efforts, three of those cities are in Massachusetts.

Fiscal responsibility, says Blute, doesn't have to mean abstinence from Washington money. Even with less spending there is still money to be had. The clean water bill, for example, includes $300 million in direct grants.

Poking around Blute's district, though, a question arises about whether the kind of projects he hopes to gain funding for will strengthen his political base. As a Republican from Massachusetts, Blute is on hostile soil. His district has a long tradition of voting Democratic.

Now in his second term, he has yet to win majorities in either Fall River or Worcester, the two working-class cities that anchor his district. Blute secured $1.5 million in clean water funds for sewer improvements in Fall River. That grant, along with whatever he might obtain for Union Station, would certainly help him with urban voters.

But Blute's strength lies in the suburbs, where middle-class voters are more concerned about their children's economic future than the integrity of bridges.

To appeal to them, Republicans have to worry as much about bringing home too many federal prizes as too few. Not only is voter turnout higher in the suburbs, a large number of Democrats in those areas joined Republicans in rejecting the Clinton agenda.

"In his first two years, Bill Clinton made significant investments in cities and infrastructure," says John Cogan, a political scientist at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif.

"But other factors have become so dominant, such as abortion, tax increases, and congressional abuses," Dr. Cogan says.

Even blue-collar workers, Cogan says, "turned out against the Democratic agenda," primarily the president's 1993 budget accord, which raised some taxes and increased some spending in addition to reducing the deficit.

Kevin O'Sullivan agrees with Cogan. A conservative Democrat who served in the Massachusetts legislature alongside Blute, he challenged the congressman last fall. If he knew then what he knows now about voters, he says, he would not have run.

"Suburban voters came out with a vengeance," he says. "People are driving their Lexus cars and paying their mortgages. They may have jobs, but they are insecure."

"Over the next couple election cycles, the deficit is going to be the issue," he adds. "Republicans at least have a plan."

Blute understands this. He gave up his seat on the Science Committee for one on the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, where he can play an active role in reforming the federal government. That, along with his place on the Transportation Committee, enables him to appeal to urban and suburban constituencies.

And as long as the two don't mix, says Brian Cook, a political scientist at Clark University in Worcester, Blute will do just fine.

"He's mixing ideologies - the Republican agenda [to attack wasteful government] and the Democratic tradition of [porkbarrel spending]," Professor Cook says. "Most Democrats probably don't see now as the time to challenge him."

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