Printer Friendly

Newt's heir apparent.

As Newt Gingrich travels the country, wearing the V-neck sweater of contrition, talking about his weightloss program, and pledging to learn from his mistakes and play nicely with others, his Republican colleagues are gunning for his chair as Speaker of the House. Gingrich is still among the least popular politicians in America, but he is nonetheless plotting a run for the Presidency. Hence the makeover, the tour for his new book, Lessons Learned the Hard Way (which just happened to include stops in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early primary states), and the self-effacing, awshucks Newt popping up to chuckle self-consciously with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show.

Gingrich is unlikely to win his party's nomination, let alone the Presidency. But his colleagues expect he'll vacate his seat to run in 2000, and already Representative Bob Livingston, Republican of Louisiana, has declared he's got the votes locked up to be the next Speaker.

If Newt scares the pants off progressives, in some ways Livingston is worse.

Unlike Gingrich, whose outrageous nastiness actually helped liberal causes rake in direct-mail contributions, Livingston prides himself on taking the high road. He has done much to distance himself from the meanest elements in his party. Livingston, a Gingrich loyalist, comes from the First Congressional District of Louisiana, an 85 percent white district where former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke won 60 percent of the vote when he ran for governor in 1991, according to the Capitol Hill magazine Roll Call. When Livingston flirted with the idea of retirement last year, Duke was planning a run to succeed him. Livingston publicly repudiated Duke's racist politics in his home state early and often--saying he'd use his own campaign funds to block Duke's run for Congress.

And while Newt atones for scaring people and sweats it out trying to look cuddly, Livingston shows no such strain. Courteous and charming, Livingston has a manner that is a model for Republicans, who are trying to soften their image. As a step toward greater civility and decorum, he helped organize a bipartisan retreat in Hershey, Pennsylvania, last year, which brought together members of Congress from both parties to talk about getting along in spite of their differences.

"I think we can disagree without being disagreeable," says the six-foot-four-inch Congressman in his soft Louisiana drawl. "We can do better as far as respecting the office. There has been too much denigration of this job by us collectively. We ought not to be ashamed of being members of Congress."

Livingston, who came to Congress in 1977, is also friendly with the press. In a recent news conference, he joked around with a group of reporters who were grilling him about the Speaker's race. "I feel like I've been hit with machine gun fire!" he said with a twinkle, after answering their questions.

Many Democrats prefer Livingston's gracious brand of politics to the rabble-rousing style of the Republican class of 1994. "I left a bottle of scotch in my desk drawer for him when he took over," says Representative David Obey, a liberal Democrat from Wisconsin, who gave up the chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee to Livingston in 1995. "We've been personal friends, even though we disagree. We trust each other. We try not to surprise each other. We are both institutional men. He's got his responsibilities to his party and his philosophy, and I've got mine."

Despite his soft touch, Livingston has a list of accomplishments that does Gingrich's radical conservative movement proud. As head of Appropriations, Livingston cut $50 billion from the federal budget and eliminated more than 300 government programs, while resisting even the smallest reduction in military spending. He led the fight to provide full funding for the missile-defense system known derisively as Star Wars. He wrote the federal "three strikes" law, which puts three-time convicted felons in prison for life without parole. He expanded abortion restrictions on HMOs and blocked federal health programs from funding abortion. He stopped the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from issuing new standards on ergonomics, which would protect workers from carpal-tunnel syndrome. He is the proud co-sponsor of a union-busting national right-to-work bill, English First legislation, and bills to repeal the estate tax, abolish the tax code, eliminate Americorps, and do away with the departments of Energy and Commerce.

But Livingston's greatest crusade is on the issue of Congressional ethics. Over the last several years, he has waged a relentless attack on the Federal Elections Commission (FEC). With only two investigators and twenty-seven attorneys in its enforcement division, the FEC has the responsibility of overseeing the campaign-finance laws for every elected official in the nation. Livingston has used his power as chairman of Appropriations to deny the agency's repeated requests for more money to do its job--including an urgent request to hire more staff to deal with the record-breaking $2.5-billion federal elections of 1996. Because it is chronically overworked and understaffed, the agency had to drop 204 cases in 1996 and 301 in 1997. That doesn't bother Livingston. "I've just been singularly unimpressed with this organization for the longest time," he says.

Doing away with a lot of frivolous digging around in politicians' finances fits in with Livingston's ideas about bringing civility back to government. Shortly after he took office, Livingston was outraged when the FEC conducted a random audit of his campaign spending. In 1986, Livingston and other members of Congress put an end to that practice. "No one should have to go through that," he says.

In 1997, Livingston led an effort to slash the number of press officers at the FEC from five full-time staff to two (ultimately, Congress agreed to cut only one position), curtailing the Commission's ability to publicly release information on candidates and political action committees (PACs).

At the same time, he launched the third investigation in three years into the agency's operations, tying up FEC's harried staff in the middle of a campaign season.

Democrats charged that the investigations and budget pressure on the agency were retaliation for high-profile ethics investigations of Republicans, including Newt Gingrich, Bud Shuster, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas, as well as Gingrich's political action committee, GOPAC, and the Christian Coalition.

Livingston denies it, suggesting that the six-member FEC panel, comprised of three Democrats and three Republicans, is biased. "Have you heard one single complaint about foreign contributions, drug-running--all the wrongdoing that came out of the DNC?" he asks. "It's proof positive that they're not concerned about egregious violations."

The FEC board is made up of partisans (albeit equal numbers from both parties), and it is appointed by the President. But politicians from both political parties are required by law to file financial information with the agency. And when the FEC fails to investigate possible ethics violations, it is generally because Republican and Democratic members of the board reach a deadlock.

For the record, FEC data released by the Center for Responsive Politics shows that Livingston has raised $697,167 so far in the 1997-98 election cycle, which puts him sixteenth overall, well below the top fundraiser in the House, Newt Gingrich, who has almost $3 million. FEC reports also show that Livingston is the top recipient in the House of PAC contributions from Freeport McMoRan, a mining company based in New Orleans, which has been the target of protests for its links to the repressive government of Indonesia.

By far the largest PAC contributions Livingston received this cycle come from defense companies, including Textron, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing, for a total $70,000. Energy concerns are also big PAC contributors, giving Livingston $30,200. That may help explain why Livingston spent his spring break in Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey--an area with substantial oil and gas reserves and a burgeoning market for weapons. A five-member Congressional delegation, staff, and some officials from the Defense Department went on the trip.

"The Caucuses and Central Asia are on the radar screen now because of oil and gas primarily," says a State Department official who helped brief the delegation. "One of the purposes of a visit like this is to push the government to reform the economy so investments can be made profitably."

Ironically, Livingston's gentlemanly, collegial style may be the most dangerous thing about him. It has certainly had a devastating impact on Congressional ethics. Last year, as co-chairman of the House Ethics Reform Task Force, Livingston helped rewrite the ethics rules for the House of Representatives. The result is a system that bars citizens and outside groups from independently filing ethics complaints against House members. Only another Representative may now file an ethics complaint. The House adopted the new rules in a largely partisan vote of 258-to-154 last September.

"It's the Corrupt Politicians' Protection Act," says Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project, a watchdog group founded by Ralph Nader. Under the old ethics system, Ruskin's group filed complaints against members of Congress based on newspaper reports and other public information.

"It was a public spectacle," Livingston says of the old system. "You were tried in public, convicted, and hanged before you even got in the door. Now we have the opportunity to develop a case behind closed doors first. A person being prosecuted is not going to be pilloried before the facts are in."

Under the old rules, the Congressional Accountability Project and other citizens' groups had to try to find a member of Congress willing to sponsor their ethics complaints. But they could file complaints independently if three members of Congress refused to help. Since the new system eliminates the provision allowing citizens' groups to file complaints once they get three letters of refusal, Ruskin says it weakens the ethics process.

"Ralph Nader and his followers, including Ruskin, have charged that time and time again, and it's not true," says Livingston. "Before it was an absolute sham. You go and get three blind monkeys to sign off and say they weren't going to bring charges, and you go file your complaint. If Mr. Ruskin or anyone else wants to bring a complaint, they can still do it through a House member."

But finding a House member willing to file charges against a colleague can be a tall order. Take the case of Bud Shuster, chairman of the House transportation committee. Before the rules changed, the Congressional Accountability Project filed an ethics complaint against Shuster. Not a single member of Congress was willing to sponsor the complaint, even though Shuster continues to make headlines for his alleged connection to a major corruption case.

Federal prosecutors in Boston indicted Shuster's former aide and close friend Ann Eppard on April 9. Eppard, who is now a transportation lobbyist, faces charges for allegedly accepting $230,000 in illegal payments in connection with a Boston highway project while she was working for Shuster, and for allegedly embezzling $27,500 from Shuster's campaign. Eppard still serves as Shuster's chief fundraiser. And she continues to use her access to Shuster to promote her clients' projects, many of which won generous funding in the new federal highway bill. Eppard celebrated in Shuster's office when the highway bill passed in April. Among other treats, the bill contained $12 million for a research center at the University of Buffalo to study transportation-related injuries, and $3 million for a movie about engineering by New York documentary filmmaker Ken Mendell. Both the research center and the filmmaker are Eppard's clients. (Neither Eppard's lawyer nor Shuster's office returned calls seeking comment on the case.)

Despite all the public attention to Shuster and Eppard, the ethics investigation has languished. Ruskin recently tried to amend his complaint against Shuster. He failed because he could not find a Congressional sponsor.

Under the new rules, Ruskin argues, the Congressional Accountability Project would never have gotten its original complaint off the ground, since at the time no member of Congress would agree to take on Shuster, who controls pork-barrel highway funds in every district.

To add insult to injury, when Livingston's ethics task force needed to hire an attorney, it chose none other than Ann Eppard's lawyer, Richard Leon, who was then working to defend Eppard in her corruption case.

Livingston denies that this is a conflict of interest. "By that charge, any counsel who had other clients would be rejected. We couldn't get a lawyer," Livingston says. He points out that his task force wasn't directly investigating Bud Shuster. "We're not an adjudicating body, we're a procedural body."

Still, letting Eppard's lawyer help rewrite the ethics rules is more than a little cozy. Not surprisingly, the new rules have been a boon to Shuster. No member of Congress will touch the Congressional Accountability Project's amendment, which concerns Shuster's habit of holding fundraising events when he takes fact-finding trips to visit areas applying for federal transportation money.

The net result of Livingston's crusade is that you don't hear too much about the high-profile ethics cases that plagued the Republicans over the last couple of years.

"I think the fact that we haven't seen people pilloried in the press shows it's working," says Livingston.

The investigation into Newt Gingrich, who is accused of illegally using tax-exempt contributions to GOPAC to finance his own campaign, is in the deep freeze after more than two years. Charges were dropped against Tom DeLay, who was accused of shaking down lobbyists who wanted access to Republican leaders and of giving legislative favors to clients of his brother, Randy, a Washington lobbyist.

If Livingston wins the race for Speaker, it would be a reward for defanging the ethics process and for remaining loyal to Newt Gingrich, whom he defended last year when Republican dissidents were plotting to oust the Speaker. It would also be a stunning repudiation of Dick Armey, Republican of Texas, who, as the Majority Leader in the House, should be Gingrich's logical successor.

"It is extraordinary for a Majority Leader or Whip not to be the presumptive Speaker--I can't remember when it wasn't that way," says Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts. "It's partly a judgment on Armey personally--he doesn't have the personality and judgment to be Speaker."

Republicans in the House may also want a leader who will project a more congenial face to voters. "Armey is more on the Newt Gingrich, radical, disruptive side," says Frank. "Now Newt is trying to leave his history behind."

Livingston says he's the best choice for Speaker because he can work with everyone. "I'm a person who can reach across the aisle and run Congress well," he says. "I think I've got a pretty good track record in getting bills passed within my committee."

Representative Obey, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, agrees that he and Livingston have a constructive working relationship. "Appropriations is the most bipartisan committee for good reason," Obey says. "The one thing Congress must do each year is to pass the appropriations bills--the budget. These issues are so complicated, you can never pass bills with votes from only one side of the aisle, otherwise the government will shut down."

Like most Appropriations chairmen, Livingston is adept at building coalitions. But that doesn't mean he's not ideological. "Make no mistake about it, Bob is not a bipartisan moderate," says Obey. "He's a committed conservative and a committed partisan. He knows how to work with people on the other side, even when he's trying to push them to the wall."

When the Republican leadership decided to have a stand-off with the President and let the government shut down, "Livingston was an enthusiast," Obey recalls. "The difference between Livingston and some of the junior hell-raisers is that he learned from that mistake, and they didn't."

Obey is relieved by the diminished stature of the Republican freshmen who arrived in Washington in 1994 ready to tear apart the system. "These fellows had the view that they had a direct line to God, and they were the new Centurions. Anyone who got in their way, be it a Republican or Democrat, was bound for oblivion," Obey says. "I was at the shoe-shine chair in the men's restroom in the Capitol, and one of these freshmen was watching Henry Hyde give a speech on the television, opposing term limits. And this guy started muttering, so everyone could hear him, `Oh, sit down, you silly old man.' I said, `Look, I don't know who you are, but like it or not, Henry Hyde has demonstrated be belongs here, and with all due respect, the jury is still out on you.'"

Livingston passes the insider test, which makes him more effective than his petulant Republican pals. But the substance of his program isn't much different.

"Armey versus Livingston is only about degrees of bad," says Frank. "Livingston is a much more decent human being. But, in fact, if you were being a partisan Democrat, you'd probably root for Armey, because he'd be a disaster politically for [the Republicans]."

Quietly, expertly, with aplomb, Livingston struck the great bipartisan compromises that led to $50 billion in cuts to social programs. He buried his colleagues' ethics violations and closed the ethics process to the public so Republicans and Democrats alike who have something to hide can sleep easier. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

Ruth Conniff is Washington Editor of The Progressive Magazine.
COPYRIGHT 1998 The Progressive, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Representative Bob Livingston
Author:Conniff, Ruth
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jun 1, 1998
Previous Article:Pepper spray at Goodwill.
Next Article:Cyberghetto.

Related Articles
LATE-BREAKING BULLETIN: III. Representative Hastert Named New House Speaker.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters