On the Road in Quest for Speakership
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 6, 1998; Page A04
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.Bill Evans is a lobbyist who usually divides his time between Georgia and Washington. But last week he ventured clear across the country just so he could get an audience with the man some people were calling "the pope of Congress."
He joined a small group of thousand-dollar donors at the celebrity hangout Jimmy's Restaurant to spend a few minutes with Bob Livingston (R-La.), chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. When his moment came, Evans asked Livingston whether he could help resolve a dispute between his client, a paint manufacturer, and the Environmental Protection Agency over paint fumes. Evans walked away with the name of Livingston's staff director, James W. "Will" Dyer.
"We might be able to accommodate him with some language," Livingston said in an interview later. He meant that he might be able to insert some wording to solve Evans's problem in one of the annual spending bills he controls.
For Livingston, the encounter was no different from what happens routinely in the hallways and reception rooms of Congress, where he answers supplicants by promising to examine their specific requests for legislative remedies. The significance was the setting.
Bob Livingston, one of the Hill's consummate inside players, has taken his show on the road. Although he was on the verge of retiring from politics four months ago, the 21-year House veteran has now assembled a national fund-raising drive with the short-term goal of raising money for Republican candidates -- and the long-term goal of propelling himself into the speaker's chair.
Outside of Washington, many Republicans don't know who he is, until he gets introductions like the one California state Assemblyman Gary Miller delivered at a campaign breakfast: "Other members really suck up to this guy, because anything they want to get through the House, anything for their district, has to go through him."
Another candidate, Randy Hoffman, noted at his breakfast kickoff that because the 13 Appropriations subcommittee chairmen are nicknamed "the college of cardinals," by definition Livingston should adopt the moniker "pope."
While Livingston politely demurred from accepting the title, executives representing various industries, from oil to real estate, treated him like a visiting head of state.
On the stump for GOP candidates this week, Livingston displayed neither House Speaker Newt Gingrich's fervent oratory nor House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey's folksy stream-of-consciousness littered with country lyrics. Instead, the 6-foot-4 patrician lawmaker from New Orleans, whose namesake helped draft the Declaration of Independence, came across as a corporate peer, more comfortable discussing interest rates than unborn babies.
He socialized easily with the industry executives who joined his string of fund-raisers, from a luncheon at Atlantic Richfield Co.'s downtown Los Angeles headquarters to the cavernous, art deco halls of an ocean-liner-turned-hotel.
In each setting, Livingston delivered a lecture on how the nation's economy has fared during his tenure in office, from Jimmy Carter's energy crisis to the robust surplus and disciplined budgeting of today's Republican Congress.
The Louisiana Republican did not spend much time expounding on his leadership aspirations, beginning every speech by emphasizing that he is a "Newt Gingrich loyalist" and intends to run for speaker only if Gingrich decides to relinquish his post to launch a presidential bid. After a flurry of public statements earlier this year, Livingston has adopted a lower profile and focused on raising the kind of money for GOP candidates -- more than $500,000 so far -- that can help the party retain its majority.
Supporting candidates as part of a leadership bid is nothing revolutionary. Freshmen candidates in particular can be crucial swing votes.
However, the concerted effort of Livingston and his most likely rival for the speakership, Armey (R-Tex.), has accelerated this season's fund-raising crusade. By any standard, Armey is a devoted supporter of his colleagues, raising more than $1.3 million and distributing $400,000 to candidates so far.
One Armey supporter, who asked not to be identified, criticized Livingston for becoming such a recent convert to the religion of fund-raising.
"The real question is why a committee chairman in his 11th term is only right now starting to build our majority," the backer said. He noted that Armey traveled to 137 districts during the last election campaign and gave $800,000 to candidates, along with $750,000 to the National Republican Campaign Committee. "Armey's been doing it since his first term."
But Armey, who has raised much of the money for his leadership political action committee through direct-mail appeals, is not known for mixing at intimate fund-raisers with business donors, the party's traditional money base.
"Dick doesn't like to do it. He doesn't know anybody downtown," the member said. "You have to have a willingness to get to know the players, the CEOs and the donors."
As a conservative ideologue, Armey also has alienated some key industries while pushing for military base closings nationwide and an end to agricultural subsidies. Having never chaired a congressional panel in his career, the majority leader has not worked with industries as much as other high-ranking Republicans.
Defense industry heavyweights such as Northrop Grumman Corp. Chairman Kent Kresa and the general manager for its military aircraft division, Bill Lawler, who flocked to Jimmy's Restaurant, said Livingston remains a stalwart ally while other lawmakers have become complacent in peacetime.
Another defense industry executive who attended Livingston's Cajun-theme fund-raiser on Capitol Hill last month said it only made sense to support the Appropriations Committee chairman. "His obvious opponent is Dick Armey," said the executive, who asked not to be identified. "Dick Armey's never done anything for the defense industry, and he never will."
Armey also is a vocal supporter of the religious right, championing measures opposed by business, such as trade sanctions on governments accused of religious persecution. Livingston, by contrast, preaches fiscal responsibility instead of talking about thorny social issues such as abortion.
When asked about social issues at one event, the Louisiana congressman endorsed the concept of a "big tent" approach.
"We need everybody," he said, adding that he had watched "true-blue liberals" like the late Rep. Gillis W. Long (D-La.) drive moderates away from the Democratic Party. "We need a majority."
The response pleased area businessman David Hall, an auto executive from the City of Industry.
"I wanted to make sure he wasn't such an arch-conservative, such a preacher of a dogmatic view that, if he was elevated to speaker of the party, he wouldn't ostracize certain elements of the party," Hall said. "He made it clear he was an inclusive person."
Livingston's "fundamental shtick," as he calls it, contains a few crowd-pleasers such as the GOP's plan to abolish the tax code by 2002. But when pressed by an audience member to characterize the party's current tax cut plans, Livingston provided a frank assessment rather than an applause line.
"We're set to pass another nominal tax reduction with $30 to $60 billion of impact," he explained. "It's nipping and tucking around the edges."
Occasionally he made an attempt at partisanship, eliciting groans when he mentioned the prospect of liberal Democrats Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.) and John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) taking control of key committees. But more often he had kind words for Democrats, defending Sen. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) and calling Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.) "a nice lady" even as he urged a group to support Republican Steve Kuykendall's effort to capture the seat she's leaving.
Despite his new role as a national campaigner, Livingston remains at heart a legislator. Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), who serves as ranking minority member on the Appropriations Committee, said he and Livingston are able to bridge their ideological differences because they share a common understanding of the process.
"What is important as a legislator is recognizing that substance is at least equal with politics in consideration of legislation," Obey said.
Livingston is an unabashed institutionalist. He informed audiences across Southern California that he believed politicians should be prouder of what they do. "I'm no poster boy for term limits," he acknowledged.
Livingston and his wife, Bonnie, are fixtures in the Capitol Hill community, traveling with other congressional couples across the globe on fact-finding missions and championing projects such as the U.S. Botanic Gardens. When asked about the idea of her husband taking on Armey as a political opponent, Bonnie Livingston looked pained. "He's fished in front of my house and walked up in for pancakes," she recalled.
At the moment, however, Livingston appears to be relishing the contest. It stands in stark contrast to his failed gubernatorial bid in 1987, when he was constantly ill at ease and finished with 18.5 percent of the GOP primary vote. Now, he is managing to squeeze in a morning jog before stopping in at three or four fund-raisers a day.
While he says he will be happy with the "consolation prize" of a private-sector job, he is clearly comfortable with laying claim to the third-highest office in the land. "I know I will be a good speaker," he said.
"He hasn't had a tough campaign for a while," observed Washington lobbyist Jay Stone, a former Tulane classmate of Livingston's who has been actively fund-raising on his friend's behalf. "He's just making up for lost time."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company