AS a candidate for Congress, Steve Chabot vowed to slash the federal budget. It's not surprising, then, that the freshman Republican from Ohio fought to kill a $2 million transportation grant to the city of Cincinnati.
But this particular crusade left many voters in Congressman Chabot's home district downright stunned. Especially the ones who live in Cincinnati.
In a startling break with tradition, Mr. Chabot and a handful of fellow Republicans in Congress have devoted themselves to balancing the federal budget - even if it means saying no to party leaders and, on occasion, to their own constituents.
If Congress succeeds in its plan to balance the government's books by 2002, these frugal freshmen will be remembered as the pioneers of a new order in Washington: one that frowns on ''pork'' in the federal budget and encourages cities and states to solve more of their own costly problems.
''There is still too much pork in Congress, but we're heading in the right direction,'' Chabot says. ''Our goal is to convince fellow members that this should be the new standard by which we judge ourselves, not just voting for the parochial interests of our districts.''
Already, the pork attack has claimed a few victims. Late last month, a group of renegade Re-publicans, including Chabot, joined Democrats to help derail the defense spending bill.
From the outset, GOP deficit hawks had criticized the fact that the defense bill exceeds the Pentagon's high-end budget request, and contains added billions for dubious weapons systems that would be produced in states and districts held by key Republicans.
According to a Washington-based watchdog group called the Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), last year's budget contained $10 billion in spending that, in their view, was plain-and-simple pork. This year, however, CAGW analysts put the pork tally at just $1 billion.
''The balanced budget has become a political icon,'' says Tim Penny, a former Democratic congressman from Minnesota. ''As a result, pork-barrel spending is viewed among the greatest of sins. These days, you'll see cities and counties demanding less of congressmen. The longstanding relationship with the legislator who helped bring home the bacon is a thing of the past.''
To Chabot and his compatriots - among them Wisconsin's Mark Neumann, Florida's Joe Scarborough, Indiana's David MacIntosh, Washington's Linda Smith, and Sam Brownback of Kansas - this change is wholly positive. Cincinnati, Chabot argues, will benefit more in the long run from the growth and prosperity a balanced budget could bring than it would from continued federal handouts.
One man's pork
But one person's pork barrel is another's defensible project. In Cincinnati, many civic leaders criticized Chabot's attempt to eliminate the transportation grants. The $666 million program, which would allow Cincinnati and dozens of other congested cities to study mass-transit options, was inserted in the budget last year, before the Republicans took control of Congress.
''[Chabot] has a very single-minded interest in cutting every unnecessary federal expenditure,'' says Tom Ewing of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. ''I'm not criticizing his philosophical stand, but when it comes to the implications for Cincinnati, it's tough. I don't hear a lot of people asking 'do we need this?'''
Although Chabot's amendment to kill the grant program failed in the House, he is not backing down from his opposition. All the transportation studies, he contends, will surely conclude that major construction projects are necessary - projects that could cost, in Cincinnati's case, as much as $800 million.
At a time when Congress is cutting back, Chabot argues that communities should stop waiting around for federal grants and start looking for ways to solve problems with local resources. No matter what the Cincinnati study proposes, he says, ''Washington isn't going to come up with the money.... That means you've just wasted $2 million.''
Indeed, Mr. Ewing, the chamber of commerce official, concedes that Chabot's message is, in a way, ''constructive.'' Not only does it encourage business leaders to think creatively, he says, but it sends ''an important message to state and local politicians,'' that they will have to pick up more of the load.
''I think it's healthy,'' adds former Congressman Penny. ''In the past, local governments always waited for years for a federal grant. When you consider the inflated costs that come with that delay, and all the strings that come with federal money, I'm not sure cities gain much'' from federal grants. From the outset, Penny says, communities should ask themselves: ''is this a program that needs a federal role?''
While few of these budget-cutting buccaneers have been tested at the polls yet, some analysts say fiscal discipline is a popular trait. GOP pollster Frank Luntz says members of Congress who demonstrate it earn a ''moral superiority'' that allows them to put pressure on other members to follow suit.
The dean of all pork fighters, three-term Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays, has been reelected twice, Mr. Luntz notes, even though he opposed projects (like submarine contracts) that would funnel hundreds of millions into his home state.
''People criticize my defense votes,'' says Congressman Shays, ''but to me they're budget votes all the way.''
In the new political climate, Luntz adds, the public holds members of Congress more accountable for how they vote, and continues to view Washington more as a problem than a solution. Members like Chabot and Shays, he says, ''aren't ahead of their time, they're just listening better.''