For a time, no one took Dick Armey seriously. Elected in 1984, the Texas congressman was just another conservative ranting on C-Span against every spending program. He was a little kooky to boot, sleeping on a cot in his office to save money. But he tired of being the class clown and decided a better way to beat the system was to join it. Learning the intricacies of pork-barrel politics, he brokered an agreement in 1988 that will result in the closing of 86 outmoded military bases. That victory emboldened Armey to take on another sacred cow the House Agriculture Committee. This summer he is pushing a bill that would bar federal subsidies to farmers whose net income is more than $100,000. While relatively few in number (33,000 out of 2.2 million), fat-cat farmers received 60 percent of crop-support money in 1988.
Armey has discovered an essential truth about Congress: committees are really just an extension of special-interest groups. Comparing the Agriculture Committee's inner sanctum to Al Capone's Chicago, he accuses the committee members of divvying up peanuts and wool mohair like gangsters specializing in prostitution and book making. Their largesse, he says, has turned American farmers into "a 350-pound man on a life-support system." Armey heads a growing band of congressional guerrillas--suburban Republicans like himself and urban liberals who are determined to break the farm cartel. None are committee members, so their war is an underground assault on the clubbiness of Capitol Hill. "The tactic is to intrude from the outside and roll the committee," says Armey.
A former economics professor, Armey brings an academic approach to congressional highjinks. He talks about "systems analysis," a phrase from his wife's family-therapy practice. "Aberrant behavior is never going to be in an individual alone," Armey says. "You've got to get at the family--the system he operates in." His therapy is to break the system of "log-rolling" that allows members to trade favors for votes. The phrase dates back to America's pioneer days when neighbors helped each other. But in today's budget squeeze, members of Congress can be prodded into ganging up on each other's pet programs. Armey is counting on this tactic to splinter support for the five-year, $55 billion farm bill. He calls the bill "welfare for the rich."
But Armey likes to apply what he calls an "assignable demagogic coefficient" to issues. "Demagoguery beats data every time," he says. Armey's targets claim he is being unfair. Rep. Kika de la Garza, who chairs the Agriculture Committee, argues that if wealthy farmers are denied subsidies, why shouldn't such "means testing" be applied to wealthy defense contractors or doctors who receive Medicaid payments? Such notions obscure the fact that only farmers get paid to take a vacation from farming. But as Armey knows, going after fat cats in any field is a popular political tactic.