When he was governor of Ohio, Sen. George V. Voinovich (R) drew the line on using hypothetical budget surpluses to finance tax cuts. When he came to Congress this year, he drew the same line, defying party loyalists and burnishing his 33-year record as a fiscal tightwad with a stubborn streak of political independence.
Through weeks of partisan warfare over how big the tax cut should be, the freshman senator and self-styled "old war horse" of Ohio Republican politics was a conscientious objector, arguing that any cut was too large so long as the revenues were not already in hand to fund it.
He was one of only a handful of senators who had opposed all proposed tax cuts: the $792 billion Republican plan that was approved yesterday by both houses, the smaller Democratic cut that died along the way and the split-the-difference alternative that was unsuccessfully advanced by moderates of both parties.
"There's an old saying most of us learned as children that goes, `If it sounds too good to be true, then it is,' " Voinovich told the Senate during the tax debate. "The news we've been hearing about bigger-than-expected budget surpluses for the next 10 to 15 years is precisely that: too good to be true." Except on paper, he added, there is "no budget surplus."
Not that his words had much impact. His reputation as a tax-cut skeptic preceded his arrival in Washington, so his arguments came as no surprise. And most of his GOP colleagues were in no mood to heed such dispiriting talk from Voinovich, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan or anyone else who urged caution in reducing taxes.
"It's just incredible to me," the low-key, plain-spoken Voinovich said later in an interview. "I really feel like I'm in another world."
In a way, he is.
Voinovich is a throwback to the old orthodoxy of Republican conservatives who gave top priority to balanced budgets and debt reduction, and he is clearly out of step with his party's new orthodoxy of tax cutting. What's more, he doesn't seem to care much.
"I'm an old war horse and I'm running out of time," said the 63-year-old lawmaker. "I've been through the mill . . . 33 years . . . a state legislator, county auditor, [county] commissioner, lieutenant governor, mayor, governor. I've had to deal with real budgetary problems. I think I understand them as well as most, and my logic tells me you just don't do this."
But he may also be the wave of the future. He was joined in the small no-tax-cut caucus by another freshman, Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), and many lawmakers of both parties have said they will shed no tears if a promised veto of the GOP tax bill by President Clinton results in the surplus being used for debt reduction.
To buttress his case against relying on future surpluses for tax cuts, Voinovich draws on his experience: As mayor of Cleveland during the 1980s, he steered the city out of bankruptcy by cutting spending, raising taxes and sparking a business revival. When he was elected governor in 1990, the state was $1.5 billion in debt, and Voinovich served up the same medicine, with the same results.
When the Ohio legislature was considering a tax cut and targeting a new "rainy day fund" to finance it, Voinovich put the fund off limits and insisted on making any tax cut conditional on actual cash-in-hand revenue surpluses each year. By last year, this plan resulted in a 10 percent reduction in state income taxes.
Relying on projections that stretch 10 years or more into the future is only one of the problems that Voinovich sees in cutting taxes on the federal level. Even if the projections turn out to be accurate, he argues, any surpluses should be used to pay down the $5.5 trillion federal debt. Moreover, he says, tax cuts should be reserved to stimulate the economy when it cools, not to heat it up when it is already at full boil.
Voinovich also questions the GOP's political calculus that tax cuts will be a sure winner for next year's elections. "Maybe they have a different constituency than I have," he said, "but when I ask people, one after another, how they feel about a tax cut, they say this is not the time to do it."
Although he votes with his party most of the time, Voinovich has strayed on a couple of other issues, including a big military pay and pension increase (he opposed it) and background checks for gun shows (he favored it). He wants to tighten campaign finance laws.
Voinovich's starchy independence comes as no surprise to Senate leaders. Like other governors, he was always breathing down Congress's neck. "Don't worry about George," the Columbus Dispatch quoted Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) as saying last year when asked how Voinovich would fit into the Senate. "He's driving me crazy already."