If balancing the federal budget required nothing but exuberance, Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) would have had Washington running in the black a long time ago.
Kasich, the 44-year-old chairman of the House Budget Committee, is renowned on Capitol Hill for leavening dry-as-dust budget debates with a boyish enthusiasm that invites comparison to a hyperactive child. When the new Congress convenes in January, Kasich will be in the vanguard of Republicans' renewed efforts to reach an agreement with the White House on how to balance the budget.
Kasich comes to the fight bearing battle scars from the last Congress' titanic struggle with the White House over the GOP budget-balancing plan, which President Bill Clinton vetoed. That plan was the new GOP majority's most ambitious undertaking, and most politically risky venture, as Democrats campaigned heavily against its controversial features in the 1996 elections.
Kasich's role as an architect of the budget helped catapult him to prominence among the GOP's emerging younger generation. His name surfaced as a possible running mate for Bob Dole this year, and has even popped up on lists of future White House contenders. The next two years may be crucial if he is to reach beyond his current role as a brash young Turk.
He brings to his work a kind of intense, ebullient passion that charms many but grates on others. "There are some folks who, when they say 'good morning,' you just want to hit them. John strikes some people that way," Rep. Jim Ross Lightfoot (R-Iowa) once said. "Sometimes you've got to count to 10 before you say things. John only gets to three."
He defies the the button-down culture of the Capitol by bounding around its halls in high-topped sneakers and by frequenting Rolling Stones and heavy-metal concerts.
He also defies the bitter partisanship that has split the House in recent years by finding an unusual number of friends and allies on the other side of the aisle, including Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Oakland), one of the most liberal members of the House and who has teamed with Kasich to fight the B-2 bomber and other Pentagon spending they consider wasteful.
Although he is a solid conservative and loyal lieutenant of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Kasich has an independent streak. He has pushed hard for Pentagon reforms and cuts in corporate subsidies--often in the face of resistance from members of his own party.
Kasich, a 14-year House veteran who represents Columbus, Ohio, is divorced. But he is now engaged to be married in March to Karen Waldbillig, a public-relations consultant who has been his girlfriend for seven years. Kasich is the son of a mailman and grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Ohio State University in 1974 and won a seat in the Ohio state Senate four years later at age 26. He came to Congress in 1983, after he unseated a Democratic incumbent in an upset victory.
After Republicans took control of the House in 1994, he became chairman of the House Budget Committee, a post that thrust him into the leadership of the GOP's effort to transform the balance of power between Washington and the states while eliminating the deficit by 2002. He now returns to that task convinced that this time around, Clinton is going to have to take the lead.
Question: You worked hard in the last Congress to get a balanced budget enacted, and it didn't happen. What are the prospects now?
Answer: I started this quest back in 1989, when I wrote my own budget and got a handful of votes. In fact, one guy once said that you could fit all the people who ever voted for Kasich's budget in a telephone booth . . . . In '95 and in '96, I think the House Budget Committee was successful in doing one thing: That is, we have permanently stamped the idea of the need to balance the budget in America on the federal government of the United States . . . . Now this may be, in a way, like an old jalopy that misfires here and there. We will ultimately get it done. And when the president of the United States comes out after the election and says his top priority is balancing the budget, to me, that's it. Now it's a matter of detail.
As to whether the administration really wants to have the courage to make the structural changes [needed to balance the budget] is yet to be decided. You have to prepare for the giant wave that's going to hit the people in the country over the course of the next decade plus. It's the wave of the baby boom. The number of people getting benefits is going to be very close to the number of people who are paying for them . . . . I just don't know what [Clinton is] willing to do. They're going to have to be the leaders in this.
Janet Hook covers Congress for The Times.
If we were to just go out and try to pass things that the administration indicated they were going to veto, then you would not only not get the policy done because they'd veto it; but, secondly, then they'd use it to beat you over the head and try to destroy you politically . . . .
The reason why we're going to have a balanced budget is because the American people have basically said, you bunch of rumdums, the least you can do is balance the budget because I have to work to balance mine.
Q: Republicans are still calling for tax cuts but have indicated they may settle for more modest cuts than what you were pushing in the last Congress? What are your top priorities?
A: My view would be we need something for the middle class. I like the family tax credit. I think that's a good idea. I think there's something to be said for college tuition [tax breaks proposed by Clinton]. I'm not sure that the deduction of college tuition really is enough, but we'll clearly have a problem with people being unable to afford college. I also think we've got to have some program that encourages people to invest, so some kind of capital gains [tax cut].
Q: You've been an advocate of cutting business subsidies and other "corporate welfare," not just welfare for the poor. What's the problem and what do you plan to do about it?
A: We did do welfare reform. I was very involved in it. Felt very strongly about the fact that we needed a cultural change in welfare so that we got back to the old philosophy that if you can't help yourself, I'm going to help you. But if you're able-bodied, you're going to have to go to work. That's the biggest cultural change this government's been involved in in my lifetime, and maybe one of the great things that I've ever been associated with in my career. But that was welfare reform for people who don't have power. I now believe that it is absolutely critical that we have welfare reform for people who do have power, and that includes the Pentagon.
I think the Pentagon is a bloated operation that's highly inefficient, that needs to be reformed. I also think there are a great number of corporate subsidies that shouldn't be there . . . . For example, I have always thought it was wrong that we are giving large corporations public money to go overseas and advertise their products. Let them spend their own money . . . .
Inside the Pentagon, I don't even know where to start. We have too much interservice rivalry, too much parochialism, too much "you scratch my back, I scratch yours," too many weapons that get built that shouldn't get built. It just goes on and on and on. It's a great profit center for corporate America.
Q: Were you disappointed that your party didn't do more in this area?
A: No, I actually believe that one of the great misunderstood things in America today is that the Democratic Party has really been the lap dog for these giant, multinational corporations. In all of these years, you heard these liberals running around talking about the fact that they were outraged by all these special tax breaks, when they were putting it into law. It was a Republican Congress that actually went out and, for the first time, drove the closing of corporate loopholes . . . .
I think we've made great change. You know, sledding's always tough, but I think we've had a sea change on this. And, I'll tell you this. Because of the success of welfare reform, I believe that the opportunity to end unnecessary subsidies for corporations and reform the Pentagon becomes much more likely. I think we will have a window of opportunity to get this done.
Q: Many Republicans now seem to have scaled back some of the grander ambitions and revolutionary rhetoric you used when you first took control of Congress two years ago. Was that approach a mistake?
A: No. I've spent some time thinking about this. I think that had we not made this huge push to change the entire direction of the country--where you now have the leader of the party that's traditionally been for big government say that the era of big government is over and my No. 1 priority is to balance the budget and give tax relief for Americans--I think that could not have been achieved had we not charged the Hill with such intensity.
Now, I want to make it clear that the grandiose approach to how we want to run the government, or what our vision is for how America can be helped, is no less grandiose. It's really a matter of how you achieve it . . . . Tactics may have changed, but the vision and the desire and the intensity haven't changed inside of my soul . . . . I hope you don't think there are any coals that aren't burning bright in my soul, because they're still burning.
Q: On the economy: Last week, we saw the stock market dive and then jump back up as a result of a few words from Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan. What did that tell you about the state of the economy and the stock market?
A: I think the economy itself has been underperforming for over 20 years. We have a country now where we reward consumption but punish savings. And, in simple terms, our families are having an extremely difficult time saving anything, and if they do, we punish them . . . .
Between 1960 and 1974, real wages grew seven times as fast as they're growing today. The ability of a worker to produce more, and with greater quality, was six times higher in those glory years than it is today. That's because we've lost the great technological edge. . . .
Back when I was a kid, my dad could go to work and have a job without a college education and he could support a family of four. Now that's ridiculous. You can't even think about that. Mothers and fathers both must work. Sometimes, one has to work more than one job, and that has had a profound impact on families. People aren't home with their kids.
If people aren't getting real wage increases, they don't spend time with their kids, they get a sense of being out of control or unable to control their own destiny. It's a very serious matter. It is affecting the very culture and spirit of our country.
So here you have this stock market that's zooming along, and, frankly, sometimes I wonder about the stock market. As a mailman's kid, I intuitively got the sense that those folks over on Wall Street don't have a clue about anything going on in my neighborhood. You've just got to read basically one chapter of Tom Wolfe's book, "Bonfire of the Vanities," to get a sense that these people don't have a clue. And, to some degree, there is a disconnect between the reality on Main Street and the activity on Wall Street.
Q: The House Ethics Committee seems to be close to ending its investigation of Speaker Newt Gingrich, who came under heavy attack by the Democrats during the 1996 campaign. What affect has all this had on his ability to lead your party?
A: I have seen absolutely no impact on Newt inside the Republican Party from the standpoint of his stature or his ability for people to sit back and listen to him talk and say, "God, those are great ideas." I've just not seen the impact on that. Frankly, I thought I would see some, but I haven't . . . .
Newt is my friend. Newt is, in some quarters, a greatly misunderstood man. But I will tell you that anybody who's plowing a new field has a rough go of it. He's plowing the field, and he's getting the calluses, and a lot of us are walking right behind him with a plow, and, frankly, he's making our way easier.
Q: What are your political ambitions beyond the House?
A: There's two things I would like to do. I'd like to be very good at being able to raise money, to be able to have resources, to be able to have good, smart people around whom I can learn from. Because I want to be in control of my own destiny. Regardless of what I want to do, I want to be able to determine it without having somebody come to me and tell me you're not capable of doing that.
So I guess it's no different from a marathon. I'm not sure what marathon I'm going to run, but I know if I'm not training all the time, I won't be able to run in any of them . . . . I'll tell you what my sense is. I'm not sure that Washington can become relevant again for a long time. I think people are tuning out government. I think there are a lot of Americans who think that government does nothing but hassle them. I think it's essential that we do have a central government that has credibility that can be viewed in a more positive light, and I don't think we can get that done unless we start doing more of what the public wants. And some of what the public wants is for us to just get out of the way.*