Carl D. Perkins, mountain man. He calls himself that and, on first impression, you might believe it. He is a great hulk of a fellow whose east Kentucky twang whistles through the gap in his front teeth. With his loping stride, plowboy hands and rumpled suits, he seemed out of place among Congress' manicured politicians.
But if President Reagan wants to slash federal spending, wipe out whole social programs, he's going to have to get past wily Carl Perkins first. And that is no mean feat.
Perkins, 68, is the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee; he has been for 14 years. That 34-member panel has created and now oversees $34 billion in federal programs. Many of these Perkins fathered.
And now some of Reagan's largest cuts would come in this turf: $2.6 billion (a 28 percent cut) in elementary and secondary educational assistance, the main source of funds for teaching poor children; $6.1 billion (58 percent) from employment programs, including public service jobs; $1.9 billion (38 percent) from child nutrition funds.
The Republican-controlled Senate concurred in most of these cuts last week, and the House Budget Committee is to begin its work on them today. Perkins, one of the opposition point men in the Democratic House, is stoutly resisting.
"We have worked for 25 to 30 years on these programs," said Perkins, who left his poverty-stricken Appalachian district for Washington in 1949. "The school-lunch program is the greatest feeding program in the world. And these old people who carried us through two world wars -- how can we cut their benefits? I hate to see these programs destroyed by people who don't know a damn thing about them."
In 24 days of carefully orchestrated hearings over the past few weeks, Perkins has gathered his flock: a pleading, protesting procession of wheezing coal miners, unemployed factory workers, crippled children, state education officials, impecunious college students, teachers, food service executives, family court judges, malnourished pregnant women -- all testifying to the drastic effects of the Reagan budget.
And behind the scenes, Perkins has wheedled and cajoled nearly every member of the House Budget Committee, which is set spending ceilings in a few weeks.
He accompanied each of his subcommittee chairman before the budget panel to emphasize his personal interest in every program. at one hearing, he provided Budget Committee members with lists of schools in their districts that would likely shut down lunch programs under Reagan's proposal.
"Underneath that southern gentlemanly, Kentucky mountain-type approach. Perkins is a master politician and parliamentarian," said Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Calif.), a Budget Committee member. "You get taken in by the quiet approach -- and the whistle -- and before you know it, your pockets have been picked. But it's hard to take him on directly. His heart is in the right place."
Congress, creeping in the shadow of last November's election, is in the mood to cut heavily into social programs.
But while many Democratic chairmen in the House are looking for compromises, trimming their budgets here and there in hope of mercy, Perkins defiantly led his committee two weeks ago to recommend an increase in spending to $42.4 billion -- $3.9 billion over President Carter's proposed budget, and $18 billion more than Reagan wants.
Republicans were furious. "He is one of the most bullheaded members of Congress," said John Erlenborn (R-Ill.), who sits on Education and Labor. "He smiles and clutches your arm, but watch out. He would do anything to get his way. Almost everyone in his district gets a benefit check. The more money he can shovel out, the more godlike he appears. He's considered a deity in eastern Kentucky. He has a deity complex."
In the hollows of Kentucky's 7th Congressional District, places with names like Feisty, Rowdy and Troublesome, "Carl D.," as they call him, is a legend.
When he grew up in Hindman in the '20s, the son of a local attorney, eastern Kentucky was still like a frontier. As a boy, he would drive his mules over the mountains to the rail-head to pick up passengers and guide them across dirt roads to town at $1.50 a head.
He still drives mules, and the first picture a visitor sees on the wall of his Washington office is of Perkins, dressed in an oversized coat and floppy hat, holding the reins of a mule team with a cart of hay behind him. "I broke those mules myself," he says proudly. "Now I've about wore 'em out."
Nearly every weekend, Perkins goes to his district, often to his 86-acre farm in Hindman, where he chops wood, castrates hogs and visits with the neighbors. Sometimes he drives, as he did regularly until he retired his beat-up Ford Falcon a few years ago with 167,000 miles on the odometer.
Perkins' programs came not from the studies of social scientists, but from his own experiences. At 19, after two years of Kentucky's Alice Lloyd College, he worked as a teacher for $50.62 a month.
"I had watched all the teachers leave for Detroit, where they could get better salaries," he said. "So I sponsored federal aid to education for years . . . My uncles were stonemasons, and I used to go up in the hills with them. I watched the youngsters in school who took manual training and got jobs. That's why I'm sold on vacational education."
And many of Perkins' neighbors were men who slept upright in their chairs lest they suffocate from the coal dust encrusted n their lungs. When he graduated from the University of Louisville Law School, he labored over workmen's compensation claims and found there was little reward for years of suffering in the mines.
"Perkins' Private Pension Plan," Erlenborn dubs it, recalling that when the benefits were first set up they were to cost no more than $50 million a year. Since then, however, Perkins pushed through amendments loosening eligibility -- black lung is hard to prove without an autopsy -- and the claims of 187,000 miners and dependents (15,000 of them in Perkins' district) will cost $2 billion next year.
The Reagan administration at first saw black lung as a juicy target, but officials have laid low since March 9, when 5,000 miners marched on the White House with signs saying, "Must Miners Die to Prove Black Lung?" It now seems likely that changes will be aimed at increasing contributions to the program from coal companies.
A Perkins campaign is an anachronism in an age of computers and media consultants. His main tactic is to drive madly around the district, usually alone, stopping at country stores and filling stations and often merely at a mailbox by the road and shouting up the hollow, "Mr. Jones? This is Carl Perkins. I'm running for Congress again."
A master at helping his people get their roads graded or their food-stamp applications approved, Perkins knows thousands of constituents by name. While he's a little vague on the younger generation, his first question is always "Who's your daddy?" and he'll inevitably be friends with at least a second cousin.
He spends less than $5,000 per campaign, which means he doesn't have to file statements with the Federal Election Commission. But he does anyway, ignoring FEC forms and sending in piles of itemized handwritten expenses on graph paper.
"Bruce Lockhart, Airport, Lexington, Ky. 40501, candidate's car, dead battery -- $5" is one item in his 1980 report. Another: "Bailey's restaurant, Hazard, Ky. 41701, steak for candidate -- $13.55."
But when it comes to the federal pork barrel, Perkins isn't stingy. His district is dotted with schools, courthouses, airports and resevoirs, all monuments to Perkins' ability to wring dollars out of Washington. However, his dams have shoved poor farmers off their ancestral lands, while Perkins ignored the fact that the floods the projects were designed to alleviate came largely from lax stripmining laws.
Nonetheless, Perkins, with his ruddy complexion and beguiling off-center grin, wins elections by more than 70 percent of the vote. The last time, Republicans did not even bother to field an opponent.
In Congress, Perkins' more urbane colleagues call him "Pappy" behind his back, and snicker at his pronuunciations, especially when he takes on government "raggalation."
On occasion, when he whistles into the microphone during a debate, congressmen leaning over the back rail start mimicking the whistle until, as one observer put it, the House chamber sounds like "the bird cage at the National Zoo."
Some are taken in by the downhome style. Benjamin F. Reeves, a Perkins aide, remembers that Perkins once told him, "I'm a pretty fine feller to play dumb.' He trades on that," Reeves said. "But city slickers find themselves with one foot in the air, while Perkins and the train are long gone."
However, Perkins is widely admired for his honesty and, above all, his tenacity. He was the first committee chairman to hold open mark-up sessions. Reporters marvel that he runs his office like a country store -- anyone can walk in and listen to whatever business he's conducting.
Perkins has never taken a junket, in fact he hasn't been abroad since he fought in World War II. "He's been here 33 years, but none of the Washington polish has tainted him," said one committee staffer. "He feels it would be disloyal to the people he represents if he weren't exactly like them."
Perkins arrives at the Rayburn building at 7 a.m. when the doors of other offices are still shut tight. He has been known to walk in to work from Alexandria after a blizzard, when the roads are closed.
Single-minded when he wants to pass a bill, his marathon hearings begin at 8 a.m. and last into the night over the feeble protests of fellow committee members.
During a 1972 House-Senate conference on student loans, which lasted for weeks of late-night sessions, he forced colleagues stay up until 5 a.m. until he got his way. The day after the bill was reported he collapsed from exhaustion and was briefly hospitalized.
Panetta and other Budget Committee members who sparred with Perkins for months over spending cuts last year are bracing for the new battle.
"Perkins and his committee ought to be telling us where the legitimate cuts can be made," Panetta said. "But instead, he's in the trenches fighting a war. Perkins won't take no for an answer. No matter what doors you're closing, he's coming in a window or a side door."
Perkins, however, insists he's ready to compromise. "I don't want to be hoggish," he told a budget task force, adding that he'd accept "reasonable" cuts, perhaps 10 percent. But as for deeper cuts, Perkins confined in his soft Kentucky drawl, clutching a new acquaintance's elbow. "We're going to fight every inch of the way."