Pork-Fed Campaigns: Highway Funds Aid Ohioan's Reelection Bid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 1998; Page A01
CAMBRIDGE, Ohio Politics doesn't get any more elemental than this: If Bob Ney keeps his job in the U.S. Congress, one reason will be the new toilets he brought home to Monroe County.
Like many of his colleagues who won a thick slice of the $217 billion highway bill, Ney has been taking a victory lap through his eastern Ohio district. But the Republican congressman, who's facing a close race in November, needs the pork more than most. And so far, it's paying off.
When Ney marched in a recent Memorial Day parade through his Democratic opponent's home town of Dover, for instance, the announcer bellowed over the public address system, "Thank you, congressman, for the $9 million for our county."
He was praised for putting money in the highway bill to build two new interstate interchanges near Dover. He earmarked another $9 million to widen state Highway 79 between the towns of Heath and Hebron, and $2.2 million to widen a road from Cambridge to the local airport.
And then there were the flush toilets that Monroe County, a poor Appalachian area bordering West Virginia, was never going to get unless Ney made it happen.
"To people outside of the area this may not sound like a lot, but when you're from a small rural county and you only have two roadside rests and you're covering 211 miles of state roadway, believe me it's imperative that you have a rest stop for the general public," said Gary Ricer, president of the Monroe County Board of Commissioners.
Ney tucked $40,000 into the highway bill to install four flush toilets in a primitive rest stop in Fishers Grove Park on Route 78, west of the town of Woodsfield.
"That little flush toilet is a huge issue down there," Ney said. "People use that rest stop."
Not unnoticed is that the rest stop is in the midst of a Democratic stronghold, a few of whose votes could go a long way to holding off Ney's challenger just as the national Republican leadership hopes similar projects large and small will boost a handful of other incumbents who find themselves in tough races during a campaign season when every seat counts. In addition to Ney, five other Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee with reelection difficulties Richard H. Baker (La.), Charles F. Bass (N.H.), Jack Metcalf (Wash.), Merrill Cook (Utah) and Jon D. Fox (R-Pa.) are all taking credit for their own highway largess and waiting to see just how much pork matters.
In Washington, critics have belittled the new six-year highway and mass transit legislation for its excess of pork-barrel spending. Congress approved the bill May 22 and President Clinton has promised to sign it. While most of the new funding will be allocated to the states according to a formula, the legislation is also a cornucopia of 1,850 highway and bridge projects worth more than $9 billion that were targeted to specific congressional districts at the behest of House and Senate members.
"I think this is probably the most disgusting, pork-barrel-infested bill I've seen in my 15 years in Washington," said Stephen Moore of the libertarian Cato Institute, a leading critic of the highway legislation. "When I talk to people, mostly more conservative audiences, they're repelled by pork and believe this is the business-as-usual politics that got the congressional Democrats thrown out of office three years ago."
Yet here in the nation's heartland, many of the local officials, planners, businessmen and residents who will benefit from the spending perceive the "pork" as vital to their interests and the key to enhanced traffic flow, improved highway safety, new jobs, economic expansion and, yes, indoor plumbing. Many of these highway-widening projects are critical to the continued expansion of major industrial parks.
Even while much of the nation is enjoying a record economic boom, the decline in the coal and steel industries has kept the unemployment rate as high as 12 to 18 percent in some areas of Ney's congressional district or three times the national average.
"We don't see it as pork, we see it as a necessity," said Lynne Jones of Cambridge, a Republican member of the Guernsey County Board of Commissioners and one of those who turned out last week to honor Ney. "We're a small county, with 40,000 people, and we don't have the tax base to do this sort of project on our own."
Democratic Mayor Daniel Dupps of Heath declared that "pork barrel spelled backward is infrastructure."
"There is no other money available for new road construction in Ohio until the year 2001," Dupps explained. "We're trying to get a very viable project done. This is real-life stuff."
As a member of the House transportation committee, Ney, a sophomore, was well-positioned to influence highway policy in his rural district which sprawls eastward from Columbus through scores of small towns, farms, coal fields and steel mills. Because of his reelection fight, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) gave him added political leverage and visibility by arranging for him to serve on the House-Senate conference that drafted the final version of the behemoth highway legislation.
While federal and Ohio state road officials will control the lion's share of new highway funds spent in the state, Ney under the informal rules of his committee could pick and choose among dozens of projects on the drawing board or in various stages of development. Even in cases where the Ohio Department of Transportation had given a project a low priority that might otherwise mean no funding for years to come, Ney with the blessing of committee Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) and other GOP leaders could effectively elevate the project to the top of the list for funding.
In all, Ney won $30 million for highway projects in practically every corner of his district a respectable showing that was slightly higher than the average take for a committee member. Four of the 17 projects including the new toilets and $2 million to relocate a street in Bellaire, Ohio were added at the last minute during the House-Senate conference negotiations.
Ney also helped push through language important to his state's coal mining and steel manufacturing industries that will delay for six to nine years implementation of Clean Air Act regulations designed to eliminate man-made haze gradually in park and wilderness areas. The measure also guarantees that the federal government will pay the full cost of a nationwide particulate monitoring system, sparing the states and industry millions of dollars.
Ney, 43, a former teacher and state legislator, was first elected to Congress in 1994 as part of the Republican takeover, but then squeaked to reelection two years later against Democratic challenger Robert Burch, a former state senator. The first Republican to hold the seat in more than 40 years, Ney has had to walk a fine line between his allegiance to the GOP and preserving his critical ties to organized labor and protecting programs such as the Appalachian Regional Commission, which funnels further federal dollars to his district but has long been derided as wasteful by conservatives.
Ney spent much of his 1996 campaign in a defensive crouch, fending off Democratic efforts to link him to Gingrich and revolutionary Republican efforts to slash the rate of spending for Medicare and school lunches. This time, however, Ney is setting the tone for the campaign, and his demonstrated skills at bringing home the bacon may well provide a cushion of victory in his rematch with Burch.
"As far as pork-barreling, we're not second-rate people and we deserve the respect of Washington to return our tax dollars," Ney said last week. "I apologize to no one. I was sent to Washington to do this, and that's what people want. They want their fair share. And I'd be less than candid if I denied it was a political plus for me."
Democrats concede that Ney has gotten an important political boost from all the media attention to his pork-barrel prowess. Local newspapers and television and radio stations have followed his work on the highway bill every step of the way while editorialists have hailed his achievements.
"As ugly as the wheeling and dealing on federal highway, rail, bus and bike path pork can be, it's the best chance an area like ours gets for a shot at the dollars which can sometimes help goad [state officials] into anteing up for projects," wrote Patrick Jackson, a reporter and columnist for the Times Recorder newspaper of Zanesville.
But Ohio Democratic party officials and Burch campaign activists say it's unlikely that this fall's election will turn on pork. They note that many veterans are upset that Congress cut $15.4 billion from a program to pay health benefits to veterans afflicted with tobacco-related ailments to help pay for the increased highway spending.
"Temporarily it looks good for him until all the facts come out," said Mike Mikus, Burch's campaign manager. "It's an easy vote to bring highway projects into a district. But you must make sure that seniors, children and most of all veterans who put their lives on the line for this country are not hurt by cuts."
Indeed, during a ribbon-cutting ceremony last week at a Guernsey County jobs facility for the mentally disabled, Ney was accosted by a county veterans advocate. Pointing to a stretch of road set for widening, Darrell R. Hopps said: "I don't like the idea that the money for this road comes out of the VA budget."
But in Dover, Republican Mayor Richard P. Homrighausen is just smiling. Noting that city officials tried for six years to get a new interchange before Ney intervened, he said: "In my estimation, this will go a long way toward Bob Ney's reelection effort."
Republican incumbent Bob Ney, 44, was a safety instructor in Bellaire, Ohio, when he was elected to the state legislature in 1980. He won his House seat in 1994 and serves on the Transportation, Banking and Oversight committees. He is divorced and has two children, ages 14 and 9.
Democratic challenger Robert Burch, 47, practiced law and served as Ohio's assistant attorney general until becoming a state senator in 1985. He challenged Gov. George V. Voinovich in 1994, winning only 25 percent of the vote, and lost to Ney in 1996. He is single.
The working-class, industrial district stretches from outer Columbus to the hills and mines of east-central Ohio. Voters elected Ney twice despite a historical Democratic tilt.
Voting Record, In Percent
Voters are Talking About ...
... bringing home the bacon
As a Transportation Committee member, Ney commanded $30 million of the $217 billion highway bill in special funds for projects in his district, including:
Two new roads and an interchange, relocation of four roads and improvements on five other roads.
SOURCE: Almanac of American Politics
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company