When Sonny Bono died recently in a skiing accident, pundits were quick to point out what the loss would mean to the Republican Party. Mr. Bono, they said, was a common-sense politician who brought an outside-the-beltway viewpoint to the inbred Washington political scene. Besides, he was fresh and funny, a man whose goodwill was evident even to those who disagreed with him. In a party often accused of being bitter and mean, who could replace the former hippie who always seemed more amused than awed by the Washington power trip?
Appearing on TV's McLaughlin Group, commentator Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard had a ready answer: Steve Largent. Steve Largent, the conservative sophomore representative from Oklahoma? The former professional football player?
The outspoken believer and ardent abortion foe?
The ex-jock may seem an unlikely replacement for the ex-crooner at first glance, but no one on the panel laughed that night. Indeed, Mr. Largent has quickly silenced the critics who initially laughed him off as a political lightweight. He may be very different from Mr. Bono in many ways, but both men managed to win grudging respect in just a short time on Capitol Hill. "He's someone that people like even if they disagree with him," Mr. Barnes told WORLD, explaining his comparison of the two lawmakers. "He fills in a number of holes for the Republican Party: First, he's a smiling face. They need one. He's also a leading social conservative in the House, and he's a guy of enormous political courage."
That courage was on display last year when Mr. Largent went public with his criticism of Newt Gingrich. One of the so-called back-benchers who led the charge to de-throne the speaker, Mr. Largent says he was fed up with the kind of politicking that has always made the wheels of Washington turn smoothly. "It has to do with basic principles of honesty and integrity, more than policy or more than not getting my way," he says by way of explanation. "It has to do with expecting leadership that is honest with you, that is principled and willing to fight for those principles."
A political neophyte taking on the leader of his party-it was all but unheard of in the good-old-boy environment of Capitol Hill. But Mr. Largent was surprised to find that he wasn't alone in refusing to play by the traditional political rules. He says his most pleasant surprise upon coming to Washington was to find "so many members from around the country who came here with very principled and courageous beliefs and who were willing to fight for those. I saw that this was going to be a battle in which I had lots of comrades-in-arms. That has been a real source of encouragement."
Like everyone else in Washington, Mr. Largent has a bigger agenda than just the legislation currently under debate. Unlike most of his colleagues, however, the Oklahoman's agenda revolves around his character, not his career. "I think I have a very fundamental responsibility to be a leader of integrity to my community that I represent. I always say that the most important responsibility that I have is to live up to the nametag that I get when I go to various places that says 'The Honorable Steve Largent.' The legislation that I introduce or support, I think is secondary to that. If I conduct myself publicly and privately in a way that is honorable, not just to the people of the district that I represent but to God, then I will feel like I have been successful."
The self-effacing spirituality is no act, according to Mr. Barnes. "Any ego gratification he needed, he's already gotten" through his years in professional football. "He's not one looking to enhance his own career or to make deals, but to do the right thing. He's a level up from most of [his colleagues in the House], and it comes through."
When Steve Largent says he doesn't decide his positions by watching the polls, it's easy to believe him; he doesn't even watch C-SPAN. The congressional cable channel is as unavoidable on Capitol Hill as Muzak in a dentist's waiting room, and Mr. Largent's office is no exception. But unlike most of his colleagues, Mr. Largent doesn't keep an eye on the television monitor while conducting interviews. Instead, he focuses his wide blue eyes on his listener and hardly ever looks away. He hardly even blinks. His open, unswerving gaze communicates honesty-even guilelessness-the way Mr. Bono's wide-eyed wonderment suggested that political intrigue was beyond his grasp.
Political intrigue aside, the GOP leadership saw immediately that little was beyond Mr. Largent's grasp. As a newly minted member of Congress in 1994, he was appointed to the House Budget Committee, a plum assignment known for the complexity of its work as much as its undisputed power. Some thought the coveted appointment was too much for the freshman to handle. But as a wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks, Mr. Largent was known for spending hours memorizing the Xs and Os of his opponents' playbooks. His persistence and mental discipline paid off: Though the college standout was once considered too small and too slow to make it in the NFL, he became one of the greatest receivers in the history of the game, collecting six league records and a spot in the Hall of Fame.
The task of learning the budget-making process was still more formidable. His first step was to hire Marie Wheat, a veteran committee staffer whom he calls a "very committed believer and somebody that I trusted. She knew the process like the back of her hand." Mr. Largent spent hours with his new legislative director, poring over past budgets, learning the lingo, and charting the money trail on a chalkboard. Though it was a lot of work, he says the budget committee assignment was one of the best things that ever happened to him, giving him a birdseye view of the "duplicity and waste" in the $1.6 trillion federal budget. Still, he admits that NFL playbooks were nothing compared to the complexity of the budget process.
"I'm still not sure I understand it all. That's how complex it is," he says now, with three years' experience under his belt. "It is so complex and convoluted that I guarantee you 95 percent of the members of Congress don't understand it, and that's not an exaggeration." Though that may not come as a surprise to the Average Joe who can't balance his checkbook, Mr. Largent says it should still be cause for concern. "What that does, it allows people to get away with stuff, kind of steal away into the night and do things that other members simply aren't aware of."
Things that members of the public aren't aware of, either-like funding multiple programs scattered throughout the bureaucracy that duplicate one anothers' efforts and waste taxpayers' money. Mr. Largent says most voters have no idea of the inefficiencies created by the budget-making maze. "People say, 'I'm for job training. We can train people to increase the likelihood that they can be self-sufficient.' Okay, that's great, you're for job training-I like job training-but do you think the federal government should have 163 different job-training programs? Do you think we should have over 400 education programs that are spread across 12 different agencies, a lot of them outside the Department of Education? That's what we have."
How does that kind of thing happen? And why should Christians care? The answer to the first question is complicated, but the second, to Mr. Largent, is obvious. "People talk about, 'Well, I'm a social moderate and an economic conservative.' There's no such thing; they're not [mutually] exclusive.... Every economic decision that you make is really a moral call, whether you're talking about spending money for Legal Services or Title X or national testing standards. Those are moral decisions that you make with your checkbook.
"You do the same thing with your individual budget. You're making a moral decision when you decide to send your kids to a private school as opposed to sending them to a public school and using the dollars that you would have had to buy a new car or new clothes or a bigger house. That is a moral decision."
Mr. Largent believes that more Christians should take the time to understand the complexities of the federal budget-making process-not because economic issues are necessarily more important than social issues, but because social policies are inextricably linked to economic decisions. To that end, he agreed to guide WORLD readers through the budgetary labyrinth. Each month, he'll highlight important single votes, fit them into the big picture, and show why they're important to issues that Christians care about.
The opening salvo in this year's budget battle came two weeks ago, in the president's State of the Union address. "He thought it was one of the most expensive speeches he's ever heard," says Terry Allen, Mr. Largent's chief of staff. Just how expensive became clear on February 2, when the president submitted the actual budget numbers he had earlier hinted at. Of 15 executive departments and agencies, only Agriculture would be cut under the president's budget. Other departments, especially Democratic favorites like Education, Labor, and the EPA, are slated for tens of billions of dollars in additional funding.
But Mr. Clinton's budget proposals will not matter that much, anyway. "Essentially, we ignore the president's budget," Mr. Largent says matter-of-factly. "It's a political vehicle for him to say, 'Here's what I'm about. Here's what I'm for.' We routinely ignore it."
Instead, the Republican-controlled Congress will use its power of the purse to negate what Teddy Roosevelt termed the presidential "bully pulpit." Not that the power of the purse is absolute. Congressional budget-makers find their hands tied when it comes to huge chunks of spending. In "very simplified terms," Mr. Largent says, there are three categories of outlays in the budget: interest on the national debt (roughly 15 percent of the total budget); mandatory spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare (roughly 55 percent); and discretionary spending on everything from transportation to education to defense (about 30 percent). Because debt service and mandatory spending are mostly non-negotiable, "all the budget really does is lock in the discretionary caps." According to Mr. Largent, those caps say to the Executive Branch, "For that 30 percent of the budget, you can only spend this much and no more." All of this is supposed be done in April, although May or June is a more realistic delivery date for the congressional budget.
The number that comes out of the House Budget Committee-over $550 billion this year-is known as the 602(a) allocation. Meanwhile, the Senate Budget Committee is setting its own discretionary spending caps, and any difference between the two is hammered out in a conference committee between the two chambers. Next, the 602(a) allocation goes to the Appropriations Committees of both House and Senate, where 13 subcommittees cut the $600 billion into 13 checks that will fund federal agencies for the coming year. Again, any differences in dollar amounts between the House and Senate are worked out in conference committees, and the 13 appropriations bills go separately to the White House for the president's signature.
If it all sounds rather complicated on paper, it's much more so in practice-and not nearly as neat. The conference committee, for starters, can inject last-minute spending plans that lawmakers never even debated. Then there's the recent balanced-budget agreement, a multi-year budget plan that limits lawmakers' discretion, even on so-called discretionary spending. Finally, there are "supplemental appropriations" that crop up when the Executive Branch comes back to Congress asking for "emergency" monies that weren't provided in the previous year's budget.
That complexity explains why the same issues seem to come up again and again throughout the year-and why both lawmakers and voters have to remain vigilant. For instance, this year's first big fight will occur sometime in March and will give Christians a distinct sense of deja vu. Many will remember that conservatives in Congress tried last year to outlaw international abortion funding as part of the State Department's appropriations bill. When the White House would not agree, Congress simply refused to fund additional payments to the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund. Now, thanks to the Asian financial crisis, the president will ask Congress for a supplemental appropriation to prop up the IMF, and the battle over international abortion funding will start all over again.
With the battles never ending and the victories so fleeting, one might expect Mr. Largent to get discouraged. But he insists that his faith gives him both perspective and determination to stay in the fight. "I've already read the end of the story, and we win," he says. "That really gives me a sense of peace about what I'm doing. Even though we spend $1.7 trillion and have the most powerful army in the world, God's more powerful and has more money. I think when you've been exposed to the Creator of the universe, then the federal government doesn't seem very powerful."