COLUMN ONE : Kasich: He’s Point Man on Paying the Piper : The brash Ohio budget hawk is in charge of finding enough cuts to fund the GOP ‘contract.’ His fierce commitment to deficit reduction angers even some fellow Republicans.


Whenever Rep. Deborah Pryce boards a flight home to Columbus at the end of another exhausting week in Washington, she keeps one eye out to see if fellow Ohio Republican John R. Kasich is getting on the same plane.

If she sees him, she pretends to be asleep. “Do you know what it’s like to be trapped on an airplane sitting next to John Kasich?” laments Pryce. “Sitting next to all that intensity, after being around it all week? It’s a good thing it’s just an hour flight.”

Kasich is wearing out a lot of people in Washington these days, and the scary thing is he’s just getting started. For in this year of a Republican revolution, Kasich is the revolutionary’s revolutionary, the zealous Robespierre who screams at House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other Republican leaders in private meetings for being faint of heart--yet is the man whom Gingrich nonetheless calls his “younger brother.”


Gingrich has put Kasich in charge of the monumental task of turning the “contract with America” into reality--that means coming up with a way to pay for it. Line by line, he must slash and burn his way through the federal budget until he finds the hundreds of billions--Democratic critics say trillions--needed to finance Republican promises of sweeping tax cuts and a balanced budget.

He is the grim reaper scouring for government programs to kill and lobbyists and bureaucrats to put out of business, because without the cuts, the GOP contract will stop dead in its tracks. So while Kasich’s title is chairman of the House Budget Committee, he is really much more than that; he has become the keeper of the Republican launch codes.

Even in his own eyes, Kasich is “a contradiction in terms,” a boyish 42-year-old with an infectious sense of humor who stages Nerf-gun fights in the halls of Congress to loosen up debate over the “contract with America” and keeps a poster of the Three Stooges behind his desk; a Bible-class devotee who calls friends in the middle of the night to talk baseball, and a hard-core conservative who still counts among his closest friends Rep. Ronald V. Dellums, the liberal black California Democrat who shares Kasich’s distaste for wasteful defense spending.

He can be an impatient, impulsive lawmaker who sometimes lets his mouth get ahead of his brain; he says, for instance, that White House Budget Director Alice Rivlin “made me want to vomit” when she criticized him during a joint appearance on a TV talk show.

“When I see John in the morning, I feel like I should give him a Ritalin pill,” mutters House Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), referring to the drug for attention deficit disorder. “He’s a good guy, he was just born about 10 yards offside.”

Kasich is not afraid to define his role in historic terms. “This is the Crusade,” declares Kasich. “We have a very small window of opportunity here. If I fail to deliver, Paul Tsongas will start a third party, and Republicans will lose control of Congress.”


“This is the center,” agrees Gingrich. “If we succeed in getting to a balanced budget, the American people will remember us fondly for a very, very long time. If we fail, we’re going to have a problem.”

Indeed, Kasich seems to be a near-perfect political instrument through which Gingrich can fulfill his goals.

Divorced and childless, Kasich has virtually no family life; he shares a townhouse in suburban Virginia with his senior legislative aide and sees his girlfriend in Columbus only on weekends.

There are no distractions from his all-consuming work. He often is at his office until 3 or 4 in the morning. “He’s on a tear,” says Martha Phillips, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a deficit-reduction advocacy group. “You walk with him if you want to talk with him. He doesn’t have time for long contemplative conversations.”

Perhaps Kasich’s greatest achievement is that he has gained credibility among Democrats as well as Republicans for his fierce commitment to deficit reduction and budget balancing--no matter the political price.

Just last Wednesday, for example, Kasich proved his mettle again by breaking with the House GOP leadership and joining Dellums to defeat funding for a new “Star Wars” antimissile defense system.

And, while Kasich won’t say so publicly, GOP colleagues believe he is opposed to the sweeping tax cuts proposed in the House Republican contract, because they would take away emphasis from deficit reduction.

At the same time, he derides others in Congress who worry about the political power of the special interests who are preparing to fight his deep spending cuts.

“The best thing about a balanced budget,” says Kasich, “is that we will get rid of all the lobbyists in Washington. I don’t care what they want. I don’t care if they give me money. I’m not here for them. You know who I’m here for? The security guard in your building.”

Yet sometimes Kasich’s obsession with eliminating the deficit leads him to take impetuous gambles with the soundness of federal operations--and that clearly frightens the congressional graybeards. One senior Democrat notes, for example, that a budget-cutting proposal Kasich introduced in 1993 would have inadvertently led millions of Medicare recipients to pay more than 100% of the cost of their premiums.

“There is not a great deal of patience there, he is very sure of himself, and that irritates a lot of members of Congress who actually know more about programs than he does,” the senior Democrat said.

Still, Kasich’s daring may offer the only chance the Republicans have to achieve their objective of a balanced budget by 2002.

“He is the Evel Knievel of the budget,” says Robert Reischauer, the outgoing director of the Congressional Budget Office. “He is willing to ride a motorcycle over a cliff, without knowing what’s on the other side. But you probably need somebody in Washington like that. For every program in the budget, you can always come up with 10 reasons why it shouldn’t be cut. So you need a guy who says I don’t care, we’re going to cut it anyway.”

Yet Kasich must wonder whether anyone else will be willing to jump off the cliff with him.

In fact, the difficulty of the task of living up to the GOP contract is just now sinking in with Republicans, and many seem to be having second thoughts about the painful cuts that will be required.

Republican sources say Kasich has laid out eye-popping numbers for the party leadership. Not only will they need to come up with roughly $200 billion in new reductions over five years to pay for the contract, they will need an additional $400 billion in that same five years to get on a “glide path” toward a balanced budget by 2002.

Kasich says that will require a radical rethinking of the government’s role in society.

It could include, for instance, a “transformation” of Medicare, perhaps into a managed care system based on HMOs to control costs. And it could mean the abolition of New Deal farm subsidies--in return for fewer health and environmental regulations on agriculture.

But Kasich’s favorite approach to balancing the budget is perhaps the simplest--the general freeze. If Congress freezes all federal spending--and that means taking everything except Social Security off autopilot by eliminating automatic increases designed to cover inflation and estimated population growth--the budget could be balanced with the pain spread widely to avoid massive economic disruptions, Kasich insists.

“You know what we’re talking about to get to a balanced budget?” he asks. “We’re talking about spending $2 trillion by 2002 instead of $3 trillion. We’re talking about slowing the rate of growth in spending, that’s all.”

Still, real policies and real numbers have to be imposed to back up a freeze, and those numbers are enough to make “knees buckle,” cautions House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.). “I think there is a growing reluctance” among Republicans to Kasich’s proposals, admits Rep. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican freshman who is still an ardent Kasich supporter. “I think you are starting to see parochial interests coming to the fore.”

White House officials--especially aides to Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, a former Budget Committee chairman himself--are not surprised. “Leon can certainly sympathize with the problems Kasich is running into trying to get cooperation from other committee chairmen,” said a Panetta aide. “It’s turning out that congressional politics is pretty much the same for Republicans as it was for Democrats.”

As a result, Kasich’s timetable for delivering his grand plan has slipped repeatedly. After promising his first budget by January, Kasich says the list of spending cuts won’t be ready until late March at the earliest. A comprehensive budget to comply with a balanced-budget amendment will have to wait until May or June.

What’s worse, Kasich’s control over the Republican budget has been diminished in recent weeks after a rebellion by House chairmen, who bristled at the idea of allowing Kasich to run wild through programs under their jurisdiction. They have won from Gingrich the right to come up with their own lists of spending reductions. Kasich will give each committee an overall target; if they don’t meet it, he will identify the cuts himself.

“I think the last several weeks have been very frustrating for John,” acknowledges Gingrich. “When we were in the minority, he could write his own budgets; he was like a wide receiver going deep on his own. But now, he has to be the head coach, and he has to rely on the committee chairmen to run the plays.”

Still, friends and colleagues say that if anyone can finally drive the government toward a balanced budget, it is Kasich. “It’s important to remember that John Kasich was the only Republican challenger to beat an incumbent Democrat in 1982 when he was first elected,” observes Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio). “That was a year when nobody thought you could knock off a Democrat. So he’s used to doing things that people think are impossible.”

The son of a mailman, Kasich grew up in the Pittsburgh suburb of McKees Rocks, Pa., was graduated from Ohio State with a degree in political science in 1974, and moved into politics as a staffer in the Ohio State Senate. Three years later, he won his own seat in the chamber, defeating a seemingly unbeatable Democrat with a grass-roots campaign that has become legendary in Ohio politics.

By 1981, Kasich was already displaying an independent streak, issuing an alternative budget for Ohio to prove to the state’s Republican governor that there was no need to raise taxes.

The next year, he scored his upset congressional victory, once again relying on intense grass-roots organizing, and quickly gained attention by taking on Ronald Reagan-era defense programs. He bedeviled successive GOP administrations with his penchant for issuing his own budgets that were far more astringent than theirs; he annoyed the Pentagon after he formed an alliance with Dellums to fight the B-2 bomber, which Kasich dubbed the “pork plane.”

Kasich was widely dismissed until 1993, when he managed to lead a bipartisan rebellion of House back-benchers demanding deeper spending cuts than President Clinton was prepared to deliver. Kasich’s measure, crafted with then-Rep. Timothy J. Penny (D-Minn.), failed by six votes, sending an ominous message to the White House.

“John and I celebrated that night,” recalls Penny. “It exposed the desperation of the Democratic leadership to defend spending of every sort.”

Penny-Kasich, as that measure was known, looks absolutely tepid compared to Kasich’s new revolution. Nonetheless, friends say that Kasich is less inclined to lead valiant but unsuccessful crusades. He has acquired other traits that much improve his chances.

He has become more flexible, they insist, both in his personal life and in politics. For instance, he drew the wrath of his party last year--and nearly lost the chance to become a committee chairman--when he voted for Clinton’s crime bill, after the mayor of Columbus told him that midnight basketball worked in Kasich’s hometown.

More than any other event, the death of his parents in a 1987 car accident caused by a drunk driver led “him to search his soul, it transformed the way he looks at life, it added to his spiritual base,” said Columbus Mayor Greg Lashutka. Now, Kasich and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) regularly attend Thursday afternoon Bible classes at the Christian Embassy, an evangelical group in Washington.

Kasich is going to need every bit of his personal touch to sell the bitter medicine that he has in store for the Republican Party--and the nation. But, slowly, he may be winning over converts.

“Maybe he’s too eager, too hyper, but if you want someone to take on this spending beast, what better person?” asks Pat Roberts, the agriculture chairman.

“If we didn’t have a John Kasich, we’d have to invent him.”