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Los Angeles Times Interview: Richard Armey : The House Minority Whip Battling Against the 'Prags' (for 'Pragmatists")

June 25, 1995|Milessa Healy | Melissa Healy covers the Congress for The Times

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) calls Rep. Richard Armey (R-Tex.) the "chief operating officer" of the House of Representatives--the leader who keeps the legislative trains running on time and the workers toiling at their posts. But this conservative, tough-minded former economist could as easily be called "the enforcer," for that is both his role in the Gingrich regime and the job that best fits his pugnacious personality.

Describing his relationship as second-in-command to Gingrich, House Majority Leader Armey likes to quote a lesson he's learned from movie tough guy Dirty Harry. "A man's got to know his limits," says Armey. While out on the stump, Gingrich need never fear that Armey is "involved in some kind of a palace coup attempt" or working to water down the GOP's conservative agenda.

On the contrary, the 54-year-old Armey, an economist, has been a key defender of conservative orthodoxy in the 104th Congress. Junior Republicans, concerned for the political heat that Democrats' charges have generated, have pressed for changes in the House GOP's tax-cut package and balanced-budget drive. Through it all, Armey has remained one of the leadership's most ardent voices defending those packages from retreat. And, on Thursday, as congressional leaders struck a deal that virtually ignored President Bill Clinton's budget proposal, the argument of hard-liners, such as Armey, carried the day.

"I see confrontation as a tool," Armey said after he was elected, in 1992, chairman of the House Republican Conference. "If it becomes necessary, I am capable of using it." Indeed, one of the most mordant political epithets Armey uses on members of his own party is to call them "prags"--shorthand for pragmatists.

Beneath his hard shell of partisanship and occasional crankiness, however, Armey can be an engaging man who boasts proudly of the accomplishments of his five children and sneaks out at 4 a.m. to fish in the Potamac--and then releases anything he catches.

In his 11-year House career, Armey has also been known to bring Republicans and Democrats from both ends of the political spectrum together--in campaigns to end farm subsidies and close unneeded military bases. While the latter has been a success, Armey's five-year fight against farm subsidies may only begin to bear fruit this year.

In fighting farm subsidies, Armey forged an alliance--even a friendship, according to some--with the ultraliberal Massachusetts Democrat, Rep. Barney Frank. This friendship came under great strain this spring when Armey--in what he insisted was an innocent slip of the tongue--referred to Frank, who is openly gay, as "Barney Fag."

Armey believes that House Republican leaders have devoted too much time to courting the press during the 104th Congress. But the majority leader, sipping one of dozens of cups of coffee he drinks a day, spent 40 minutes last week answering The Times' questions in his vaguely monastic office in the Capitol.


Question: How much did President Clinton change the landscape when he proposed his own version of the 10-year balanced budget?

Answer: He made it easier to get where we need to go. For one thing, the President, essentially, conceptually, embraced everything we're doing . . . . He's given the Democrats in Congress heartburn because he's made it more difficult for them to criticize what we're doing.

Now you say, there's a difference on the details and, most dramatically, [the goal of balancing the budget in] 10 years instead of seven . . . . I don't think America's going to say, "Oh, I get it. You could get there in seven years, but now you're thinking about maybe waiting for another three? . . . I don't think they're going to like that.

. . . The President of the United States makes a recommendation. It should get full consideration. And if he's got some useful recommendations, maybe we've got a couple of places where we can get some help . . . . But I don't think there will be much of a discernible mark on the final outcome, because the details of his budget didn't hold water . . . .

Q: How do you feel about the prospect of a major scale-back of your tax cut?

A: I may have a little more difficulty than most people--maybe I'll have a lot more difficulty than most people. I'm a little discouraged at the number of people who fail to see the tax cut as something instrumental to sustaining the economy. The latest revelations we've had in the economic indicators have been unnerving. The tax increases of '93 are coming home to roost in terms of the repressive effect on the economy. The only thing we have to encourage economic growth, or avert a recession, is tax policy.

My own view is that it is critically important that we move forward with it. So I'm not going to be much in a mood to give up the only economic growth muscle we've got. In terms of really getting that kind of energy injected into the growth cycle, it's got to come from the tax cut. That's all we've got.

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