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O.C.'s Royce Makes His Mark as a ‘Porkbuster’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Were one to conjure up an image of a congressional crusader, Republican Ed Royce probably would not come to mind.

The first and last time the congressman from Fullerton had any major network television exposure, most of what viewers saw was the back of his balding head as he ran down the corridors of the Rayburn House Office Building.

A member of the House Banking Committee, Royce was ducking the questions of an ABC reporter who was asking about a banking industry junket taken by one of the congressman’s staff aides.

Nor does Royce, at 5 feet, 5 inches tall, seem like a towering influence over his conservative colleagues, judging by looks alone.

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With his feet barely nicking the floor as he sits at his office desk on Capitol Hill, the bespectacled 44-year-old politician with a pasty complexion and mild demeanor seems more like what he was early in his professional career: a tax manager for a cement company.

Despite his image, Royce is mastering the art of legislative swagger--jostling the titans of his own political party who hold power in the House and control the purse strings of the federal government--by blowing the whistle whenever he sees excessive spending on pet projects.

As a co-chairman of the self-styled “porkbusters,” a bipartisan gang of like-minded budget-watchers in the House and Senate, Royce has landed some punches and ruffled a few feathers.

The second-term congressman is not the most popular guy in the House, and his ideological aversion to pork barrel spending has led him to vote against key expenditure bills, including one that funds job-rich defense contracts in Southern California.

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He also took a drubbing at the hands of opponents who publicly accused him of hypocrisy during a fight on the House floor because he had previously engaged in the same kind of bargaining for hometown advantage he is now criticizing.

But the Fullerton congressman’s determination to dust himself off and continue to fight against pork projects is nonetheless paying off.

Along with his co-chairmen, Rep. David Minge (D-Minn.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), Royce has won the respect of perhaps the most powerful voting bloc in the House--the 73 Republican freshmen.

With the support of the first-termers comes political insurance, the kind that flashes the warning: “Don’t mess with Ed.”

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Should any retaliatory salvos be fired against Royce (like deleting budget funding for authorized projects in his North County district), “myself and every organization I am a part of” will rise to Royce’s defense, said fellow porkbuster Rep. Mark W. Neumann, a Republican freshman from Wisconsin.

That’s not just idle talk.

When the House Appropriations Committee chairman--with Speaker Newt Gingrich’s approval--demoted Neumann to a less prestigious subcommittee as punishment for his porkbuster votes, his allies forced the leadership to back off. Neumann ended up with an even better seat on the House Budget Committee and is now deemed a hero.

“How much flak are you getting for your aberrational behavior?” McCain asked Royce with a chuckle during a recent strategy session of Porkbuster Coalition leaders.

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In typical Ed Royce fashion, he answers methodically and slowly, as if asked to give a farm report. “Oh, you know, the appropriators, as always, aren’t happy, but the rank and file, and especially the freshman class, are only too happy.”

Those who know Royce say his broad streak of independence gives him the courage to take on projects sponsored by people more powerful than he, including a couple favored by Gingrich.

This is quite a transformation from the shy and reserved student he was during the mid-1970s at Cal State Fullerton, where he became active in College Republicans while earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration, says state Sen. John R. Lewis, best man at the congressman’s wedding.

So shy and restrained was Royce when he was talked into running for the state Senate in 1982 that he was uncomfortable with public speaking, or even shaking voters’ hands, Lewis remembers.

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Instead of selling Royce, one of the cornerstones of the campaign strategy was to undermine his Democratic opponent, attorney Frank Barbaro, by tying him to anti-Vietnam War activists Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden.

Royce might have remained invisible in the California Senate but for his decision to focus on crime legislation. Just as he is now doing with federal budget issues, Royce bore in on crime bills, supporting victims’ rights and passing the nation’s first anti-stalking law.

“The Ed Royce I knew as a kid, it was not in his character” to take on the big guys, Lewis said. “But the Ed Royce that developed in the mid-80s, it is in his character.”

After going to Congress in 1993, Royce did not always march in lock-step with the rest of the conservative Orange County delegation. For example, he initially supported President Clinton’s anti-crime bill, only to vote against the final version several months later, and he opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement.

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Inspired in college by free market economists such as Milton Friedman, Royce has expressed his hope that the GOP follow the Jack Kemp style of economic conservative politics, as opposed to the Patrick J. Buchanan social conservatism.

He has been rated a perfect 100 by the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Assn., but seems to work more closely with the National Taxpayers Union and Citizens Against Government Waste--groups that helped start the Porkbusters Coalition six years ago.

“Royce and Minge have really shown a solid bipartisan relationship. . . . There’s a sense they are going to hold everyone’s feet to the fire,” said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, who supported Royce’s selection to co-chair the porkbusters. “He’s tougher than he appears.”

Royce’s greater visibility in porkbuster activities, however, also means he can now expect his own actions to be watched more closely.

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His political skin became thicker in June when the porkbusters made their first big splash on the House floor, targeting “pork” projects in the military construction budget. Royce and Minge decried $10.4 million listed for a second gymnasium at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. “There is a YMCA less than a mile away,” Royce argued.

Their mere presence was a change from previous years, when the rules prohibited floor challenges of such projects. Stunned Republicans and Democrats turned it into a personal fight and pummeled Royce with criticism.

Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, noted that last year Royce had asked for almost $12 million for the Los Alamitos Reserve Center, which sits within Royce’s congressional district. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) also remarked that Royce had escorted some California constituents to his office just the month before, seeking funding for a military research project.

“I have a problem with members of Congress who want to have two standards,” Weldon charged.

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The porkbusters lost most of their votes that day, but it was a turning point.

“A lot of people, they get beat once or twice and they quit. Ed just called another meeting,” Neumann said.

The coalition proved its staying power by continuing to identify bloated projects, and gained more credibility when it rallied around Neumann when he was under attack.

Eventually, Royce and the porkbusters beat down opposition of an Appropriations Committee majority and won House approval of a “lock box,” which requires savings to go toward deficit reduction instead of being rerouted to other projects, as is now done.

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“My sense is that they have actually saved us some real money,” said Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), a member of the House leadership team and a fellow porkbuster.

So far, the porkbusters estimate they have blocked about $500 million in pet projects, including the demolition of a federal highway in Manhattan that would have benefited a Donald Trump development, an Army museum favored by Gingrich, an 18-hole golf course at Andrews Air Force Base and a reduction in the air fleet used by the military brass.

(Gingrich prevailed in one case, defending an $800,000 payout to help African and Asian nations preserve the rhinoceros, the tiger and the elephant.)

Royce lets out a rare belly laugh when asked how Gingrich reacted to the museum being cut, muttering something about the Speaker acknowledging the coalition’s existence.

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But aide John Doherty piped in with what effectively was the Speaker’s response: “Just don’t touch my zoo!” Yes, Royce nodded with a laugh. “We lost the zoo. We lost the zoo.”

During a strategy session with Neumann, Minge, McCain and their staffs, Royce runs down a checklist of work to be done.

A letter is being circulated urging the Senate to pass the House’s lock box bill, and House members want their version of the line-item veto bill approved. McCain promises that once the Republicans and the White House break the gridlock on the federal budget, he has a plan to hold up the Senate’s calendar until it votes on the line-item veto.

Minge, the lone Democrat, also asks for help persuading key Democrats to team up with Republican freshmen to defeat appropriations bills laden with pork. McCain suggests the defense spending bill--already defeated once on the House floor--is just one place where unnecessary projects will likely be found. Land transfers, especially those involving closed military bases “are very egregious,” the Arizona senator adds.

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That comment takes on more meaning in Royce’s company, since Royce has a bill to cut the bureaucratic red tape and transfer ownership of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station from the Department of the Navy to Orange County. Royce’s higher profile as a porkbuster means his El Toro bill won’t be slipped into any eleventh hour, back-room appropriations deal, but will go through the laborious congressional review system.

His work on the Banking Committee also will be watched more closely.

The incident involving the ABC news crew--in Royce’s view an unfair representation because he offered to cooperate--proved nonetheless embarrassing because Royce had no idea that his staffer had gone on a junket to nearby Virginia that offered golfing and horseback riding.

After joining the Banking Committee in January, Royce accepted more political donations than any of his five Orange County colleagues. Of the $143,624 raised through June, more than half came from political action committees; almost $50,000 was donated by PACs representing the finance, insurance and real estate industries, according to a study by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics based in Washington.

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Since then, Royce has become a co-sponsor of the “Clean Congress Act,” which would ban contributions from PACs except those controlled by political parties. It would also outlaw out-of-state donations and impose a gift ban.

Royce can also forget about bringing home the bacon for his district, advises McCain. (Royce voted for continued development of the costly B-2 bomber and its thousands of Southern California jobs; he voted against the overall defense appropriations bill last month because it contained pork projects.)

“I fought against the B-2 bomber, which has $200 million worth of contracts in my state,” McCain said. “Look, everybody may get mad at you. . . . But I predict to you that Congressman Royce, at the end of the day, will be very, very well thought of in his district because of what he’s done.”


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