As he serves out his 30th and final year in Congress, Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles) had every reason to expect that a proposed $10-million federal grant to benefit the Edward R. Roybal Foundation would sail through the House.
After all, the program to underwrite Cal State Los Angeles research on the aging was tucked away in the massive $252-billion defense appropriations bill. And, Roybal said, he followed the same legislative route that led the House to previously authorize $10 million in defense funds for a foundation in honor of former Rep. Claude Pepper of Florida.
But pet projects increasingly have come under fire on Capitol Hill in an election year when voters are demanding that record federal deficits be brought under control. Nonetheless, Roybal was stunned last week when the House voted to strip his $10-million program from the defense bill.
The amendment to cut the project was initiated by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who in an interview Wednesday called the $10-million proposal "a going-away gift" for Roybal. He said the grant is "one of the worst examples of pork-barrel spending that I've ever seen."
Burton's amendment also put the California House delegation in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between supporting the wishes of a longtime colleague and eliminating $10 million in no-strings-attached defense spending for a new social program.
For Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae), who is running for one of two U.S. Senate seats in California this year, the vote was particularly agonizing. She initially favored the Roybal project, then switched her vote as it became apparent that the House would eliminate the proposed funding.
Now Roybal, 76, is left to figure another way to push his program through the House before retiring at the end of the year.
"We're looking at all possibilities," Roybal said Wednesday. "You have to do something, because the cause is a good one."
In a thinly veiled reference to Burton, Roybal added, "If some idiot is going to get up and demagogue, then you find yourself in the same situation where everyone is for cutting except for their own district."
The $10 million would have been used as an endowment to provide $500,000 a year to operate a community-based gerontology center in East Los Angeles, Roybal said. Unlike other federally funded gerontology facilities that conduct research exclusively, the Roybal facility would have provided care for elderly people suffering from diseases such as Alzheimer's.
Roybal, who has been a leading advocate for senior health care issues in Congress, recently donated $575,000 in leftover campaign funds to establish the Roybal Foundation and create four-year scholarships in gerontology at Cal State L.A.
But Roybal's attempt to get Congress to help fund his project came up short. The outcome of the Roybal vote is another indication that the House will attempt to eliminate pork-barrel projects in the future, said Rep. David Dreier (R-LaVerne).
"It is now good politics for people to oppose so-called pork-barrel spending," said Dreier, who said he made a personal contribution to the Roybal Foundation but opposes giving any federal support. "This place is not to be a cash drawer for clearly special-interest projects like that."
Roybal, as chairman of the treasury appropriations subcommittee, is a member of the powerful "College of Cardinals" that decides how the House will carve up spending projects each year. But instead of steering his $10-million request through his own committee, he approached Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, about putting the program in the massive defense bill.
"It was, of course, at my request," Roybal said. "He did it because he did it for Claude Pepper."
In hindsight, Roybal said, "maybe I made a mistake" in seeking defense funds for the program.
The Roybal grant passed the subcommittee and committee levels without public hearings or scrutiny. The proposal was such a small slice of the defense appropriations bill that many House members were not aware that it was buried in the legislation when it reached the House floor, Dreier said.
That was before an aide to Burton, a leading organizer of the "Porkbusters" group of conservative legislators who have made a cause of rooting out special interest projects, discovered the program.
"The project is $10 million of pure pork," Burton said. "It is unauthorized, it was not requested by the Pentagon, and it certainly does not belong in the defense budget."
In a move that took Roybal by surprise, Burton introduced his amendment last Thursday, shortly before the defense bill was scheduled to be voted on by the House. Anticipating that the amendment would be defeated, Roybal said, he and his supporters "did not make a fuss" when Burton criticized the project on the House floor before the vote.
But to Roybal's dismay, the amendment passed with a last-minute surge of yes votes, 218 to 200.
A bitter Roybal lambasted Burton for singling out his project.
"Had there not been a Burton there, this would have gone through," Roybal said. "If he is after pork, he ought to start at home. This idea of picking on everyone else is not the way to make friends and have influence. He ought to mind his own business."
Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), the dean of California Democrats, said he was "terribly disappointed" by the vote. "I thought it would be unanimous (among the state delegation) because (Roybal) has been so good for California."
The program passed the California delegation by a margin of 25 to 18. Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Stanford), who touted himself as a fiscal conservative during his recent U.S. Senate primary campaign, was one of four California Republicans who voted for the Roybal program. Campbell, who lost his Senate campaign to Bruce Herschensohn, declined to return phone calls Wednesday.
Boxer was one of three California Democrats who opposed funding the Roybal project. She said she initially voted for the program, but began to change her mind when she noticed a number of her colleagues voting against it.
"I realized it was a safer thing not to vote for something when you didn't know all the details on it," Boxer said. "It's hard to do that when a colleague has his name attached to it."
The Roybal Vote By a 218-200 vote, the House on July 2 rejected a proposed $10-million grant to fund the Edward R. Roybal Foundation as part of the $252-billion defense appropriations bill. Here is a breakdown of votes by the California congressional delegation: Democrats in Favor of Funding: Robert T. Matsui, Vic Fazio, Nancy Pelosi, George Miller, Ronald V. Dellums, Pete Stark, Don Edwards, Tom Lantos, Norman Y. Mineta, Leon E. Panetta, Calvin Dooley, Anthony C. Beilenson, Henry A. Waxman, Edward R. Roybal, Howard L. Berman, Mel Levine, Julian C. Dixon, Maxine Waters, Glenn M. Anderson, Esteban E. Torres and George E. Brown Jr.
Democrats Against: Barbara Boxer, Gary Condit and Richard H. Lehman.
Republicans in Favor of Funding: Tom Campbell, Carlos J. Moorhead, Jerry Lewis and Bill Lowery.
Republicans Against: Frank Riggs, Wally Herger, John Doolittle, Robert J. Lagomarsino, William M. Thomas, Elton Gallegly, David Dreier, Alfred A. McCandless, Robert K. Dornan, William E. Dannemeyer, Christopher Cox, Dana Rohrabacher, Randy Cunningham, Ron Packard and Duncan Hunter.
Not Voting: Democrats Matthew G. Martinez and Mervyn M. Dymally.