October 8, 1995 in Nation/World

From Outsider To Insider Seat On Appropriations Panel Lets Rep. Nethercutt Shape Policy

Karen Dorn Steele And Jim Camden S Staff writer
 

First of two parts

George Nethercutt was an unknown giant-killer when he toppled House Speaker Tom Foley last year.

The Republican lawyer with the cute dog and attractive family was sent to Washington, D.C., after promising to be a “listener.”

Nine months after taking office, Spokane’s freshman congressman still has that amiable, gee-whiz demeanor. But a sharper political profile is emerging.

Like Washington state’s other Republicans, Nethercutt has a near-perfect record of supporting House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s plan to cut social programs, increase defense, deregulate business and shift power from the federal government to the states.

“We have a national skepticism of the authority of the federal government,” Nethercutt said in a recent interview.

Supporters, who include business groups and conservative organizations, laud his record as one of cutting government regulations and reducing the budget.

“We’re pleased with what we’re getting from him,” said Lonnie Taylor, vice president and chief lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Critics, particularly environmental and liberal coalitions, denounce his votes as backdoor attempts to gut environmental protection and social programs.

“He’s polite, he’s nice, and he’s completely untrustworthy,” said Louisa Rose of Spokane, a former Washington state board member of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

Nethercutt infuriated NARAL and pleased the Christian Coalition - by voting to cut federal money for family planning and abortion services for women made pregnant by rape or incest.

During the campaign, he said he favored federal abortion spending in those limited circumstances. Now he says he wants all family-planning and abortion spending decisions left to the states.

Critics charge that the abortion vote, like many others this year, is an example of a Republican sneak attack on policies they can’t or won’t challenge openly.

Although supporters say such use of “the power of the purse strings” is nothing new, most observers agree Nethercutt and other House Republicans are doing it more frequently than any recent Congress.

In addition to voting for deep cuts in agency budgets, they are using “riders” on appropriations bills - directing agencies to ignore many regulations they are supposed to enforce.

This session they have used spending bills to:

Block tougher meat inspections. Nethercutt and other Republicans withheld money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for stricter meat-handling regulations, called for after fast-food hamburgers tainted with E. coli bacteria killed four children and sickened 500 in the Northwest in 1993. The measure was withdrawn after a public outcry.

Change the course of college sports. The Education Department lost money for its Office for Civil Rights, which enforces the federal rules on gender equality in intercollegiate athletics.

Decide that a chicken can be called fresh, even if it’s frozen. Nethercutt and most other House Republicans on an agriculture spending committee agreed to block a U.S. Department of Agriculture rule that says chickens can’t be labeled fresh if they’ve been frozen below 26 degrees.

Keep charities and activists from pleading their causes before the government. An amendment to the Labor Appropriations bill would ban non-profit organizations from getting federal money if they join political campaigns, sue government agencies or advocate changes in laws that affect their members.

Block enforcement of environmental laws. Nethercutt and other House Republicans tried to weaken the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement of clean air, water and food standards by cutting the agency’s budget 34 percent and attaching 17 riders to the spending bill.

“They’re so certain of themselves that they know exactly what is right,” said Leon Shull, chairman of the legislative committee for the Americans for Democratic Action. “They’ve just decided that whatever is passed into law is bad, that government can do nothing right.”

But Taylor, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said cutting spending is a valid way to make policy. Businesses his group represents are happy the spending bills are meeting the targets to balance the budget by 2002.

“Any reasonable procedure that can be used … is worth it,” he said.

Nethercutt, who sits on the Appropriations Committee where these spending bills are drafted and amended, said he is sometimes uncomfortable with using budgets to legislate.

“But in defense of what the Appropriations Committee did, the authorizing committee chairmen gave their approvals,” he said.

Approval from a committee chairman isn’t the same as getting the approval of Congress, after a full hearing and open votes, said Norman Ornstein of the centrist American Enterprise Institute.

“They’re making decisions before they have deliberations,” said Ornstein. “Congress over the years has tried to avoid that.”

And even when Congress deliberates and rejects a Republican costcutting plan, the House GOP has worked the system to keep the plan alive, said Betsy Loyless, legislative director for the League of Conservation voters.

She pointed to a maneuver last month in which a plan to review and possibly sell off national parks was defeated on the House floor, then later resurrected by attaching it to the budget reconciliation bill.

“These are distasteful maneuvers to move public debate out of the public eye,” Loyless said. “It was done under the Democrats too. But if (Eastern Washington voters) had wanted politics as usual, they would have kept Tom Foley.”

Gary Bass of OMB Watch, a liberal Washington, D.C., group that monitors the budget, said the Senate moderated many stands taken by House Republicans. In the case of the proposed changes to EPA, for example, the Senate dropped all but one, a rider that prohibits EPA from requiring businesses to create employee car pools.

Bass believes the House Republicans’ strategy is to propose as many changes as possible, in the hopes that some will survive.

“They are proposing the egregious to end up with the outrageous,” Bass said.

Nethercutt defends the end result of these appropriations bills, even if he is uncomfortable at times with the process.

A foe of “overzealous” federal bureaucrats, Nethercutt said he didn’t view the riders as gutting environmental law, but reining in an EPA that’s too quick to fine companies instead of helping them comply with environmental laws.

“The states have existing laws or regulations that meet or exceed the EPA,” he added.

The meat industry didn’t have enough of a hand in shaping the new USDA rules, he said in defense of his vote to delay new food safety standards.

The House budget bills and Nethercutt’s commitment to cut government spending drew praise from Connie Smith, state director of United We Stand Washington, the government watchdog group spawned by Ross Perot’s 1992 presidency.

But Smith rates Nethercutt’s performance only as fair thus far in his term. She’s concerned about his commitment to government reform. She is disappointed that he hasn’t yet supported the tough campaign finance reforms sponsored by fellow Washington Republican Rep. Linda Smith.

Connie Smith also is concerned that Nethercutt supported a wide range of term limit proposals rather than concentrating on one tough standard.

“I want to see if he votes for anything that passes, or stands firm on tough issues,” she said.

His practice of accepting campaign contributions from national political action committees - some of them the same groups that gave to Foley before the election - also sends up a red flag because, Connie Smith said, “they don’t give you that kind of money for nothing.”

The Appropriations Committee, a plum assignment for a freshman, provided Nethercutt with a ringside seat at the Republican revolution. But the committee also is a place where representatives look out for their home districts as billions of federal dollars were doled out.

On that score, Nethercutt had setbacks. The committee refused money for a wheat research facility at Washington State University and for the Bureau of Mines offices in Spokane. In the case of the research facility, Nethercutt had to take a stand similar to liberal groups that denounce the policy changes: Hope for help from the Senate.

As Republican Sen. Slade Gorton worked to get the money restored in the Senate, Nethercutt applauded. Gorton, in turn, mentioned Nethercutt’s efforts in his press releases.

When the House and Senate worked out their differences on the farm spending legislation in late September, the $3.5 million for the research facility was in the final bill.

However, when the two chambers worked out their differences on interior spending, they cut not just money for most Bureau of Mines operations in Spokane, but eliminated the entire bureau. A few local employees will be assigned to the U.S. Department of Energy, a department also targeted for closure.

Resolving the differences between House and Senate budgets will be one of the main tasks of Congress for the next month.

The other will be compromising with President Clinton, who is threatening to veto many major spending bills if they arrive with the budget cuts and restrictions.

Whatever the outcome, Nethercutt plans to press his ultimate goal of cutting the federal budget - and programs the House GOP dislikes by any means available.

“It’s bureaucracy, it’s wasteful programs that aren’t serving the purpose they should serve. That’s what we’re trying to cut out,” he said. “I can’t identify every dollar, but I know those are the overriding principles under which the cuts were made.”

And if the attack on the bureaucracy does more harm than good?

“If I see proof that what this Congress is doing will cause illness and great distress to the people, I’ll stand up strongly the other way,” he said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)

MEMO: Coming Monday: Nethercutt backs big cuts in environmental laws.

This sidebar appeared with the story: RATING GEORGE NETHERCUTT We asked political organizations that rate Congress how Rep. George Nethercutt was doing after nine months in office. THUMBS UP: “He’s in a difficult position being on the Appropriations Committee. He’s had to make some very hard choices.” - Lonnie Taylor, vice president and chief lobbyist, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supports his votes on the Contract with America and spending bills approved by the House. THUMBS DOWN: “He’s moving pretty much in lockstep, as are most of the Republican freshmen. But I’m not sure we expected anything different.” - Bob Schiff, Public Citizen, which describes as “business as usual”Nethercutt’s acceptance of money from groups that formerly donated to opponent Tom Foley. THUMBS UP: “Congressman Nethercutt is exerting some significant pressure to cut the federal budget.” - Joel White of the National Taxpayers Union which supports his cosponsorship of bills to cut some $9 billion, including the elimination of the Education, Energy and Commerce departments. THUMBS DOWN: “He is very much the gentleman, quiet and civil, and doesn’t come across as a fireeater. But he is voting like an extremist by any definition of the word.” - Leon Shull, Legislative Committee chairman, Americans for Democratic Action, which disagrees with Nethercutt on 27 of 28 key votes on labor, environmental and government accountability issues. THUMBS UP: “Like other Republican freshman, he is very, very strong on sticking to the issues that he ran on.” - Bill Pasco of the American Conservative Union, which supports Nethercutt’s stance on term limits, balanced budget amendment, and reductions in welfare and labor spending. THUMBS DOWN: “He has, for the most part, voted against most public health and environmental measures. But he has gone against the party line on the student gag rule” which would have restricted political activity on campuses - Jennifer Lindenauer, Washington Public Interest Research Group, which gives him a score of 14 percent on issues it considers important. Source: Staff research by Jim Camden Staff graphic: Warren Huskey

Coming Monday: Nethercutt backs big cuts in environmental laws.

This sidebar appeared with the story: RATING GEORGE NETHERCUTT We asked political organizations that rate Congress how Rep. George Nethercutt was doing after nine months in office. THUMBS UP: “He’s in a difficult position being on the Appropriations Committee. He’s had to make some very hard choices.” - Lonnie Taylor, vice president and chief lobbyist, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supports his votes on the Contract with America and spending bills approved by the House. THUMBS DOWN: “He’s moving pretty much in lockstep, as are most of the Republican freshmen. But I’m not sure we expected anything different.” - Bob Schiff, Public Citizen, which describes as “business as usual”Nethercutt’s acceptance of money from groups that formerly donated to opponent Tom Foley. THUMBS UP: “Congressman Nethercutt is exerting some significant pressure to cut the federal budget.” - Joel White of the National Taxpayers Union which supports his cosponsorship of bills to cut some $9 billion, including the elimination of the Education, Energy and Commerce departments. THUMBS DOWN: “He is very much the gentleman, quiet and civil, and doesn’t come across as a fireeater. But he is voting like an extremist by any definition of the word.” - Leon Shull, Legislative Committee chairman, Americans for Democratic Action, which disagrees with Nethercutt on 27 of 28 key votes on labor, environmental and government accountability issues. THUMBS UP: “Like other Republican freshman, he is very, very strong on sticking to the issues that he ran on.” - Bill Pasco of the American Conservative Union, which supports Nethercutt’s stance on term limits, balanced budget amendment, and reductions in welfare and labor spending. THUMBS DOWN: “He has, for the most part, voted against most public health and environmental measures. But he has gone against the party line on the student gag rule” which would have restricted political activity on campuses - Jennifer Lindenauer, Washington Public Interest Research Group, which gives him a score of 14 percent on issues it considers important. Source: Staff research by Jim Camden Staff graphic: Warren Huskey

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