Mr. Wamp Goes To Washington

JOHN KASICH WAS NEARly in tears. At a pep rally of GOP House freshmen last week, the deficit-hawk House Budget Committee chairman elicited the kind of cheers this crowd usually reserves for Speaker Newt Gingrich. "This is about saving the country," Kasich said, choking up. "This is about changing the culture of spending." Standing to his left, Rep. Zach Wamp, a freshman from Tennessee, also turned weepy, thinking, too, about the difficult budget cuts that lie ahead. "What's coming," says Wamp, "is going to be the worst." Everybody, of course, is saying the hard part is yet to come, but nobody understands it better than Wamp, who professes conservative principles in a district deeply dependent on the federal government.

Washington finances the major economic engines in Wamp's district: the Tennessee Valley Authority and Oak Ridge's Department of Energy facilities, collectively worth 20,000 jobs. So much money, in fact, flows into Oak Ridge's Anderson County that, per capita, only four other counties in the nation get more federal largesse. (Even Washington, D.C., receives less.) Still, his constituents, like voters everywhere, endorse deficit reduction.

Although the 37-year-old sun-belt real-estate broker ran as an outsider, Wamp -whom NEWSWEEK followed through the 100 Days -relishes politics. Once in Washington, he got on the GOP Steering Committee, a perch that enabled him to vet the 70 other freshmen for committees they wanted -or needed. Says classmate Rep. Roger Wicker: "The degree to which be knows what makes each member tick is amazing." Reveling in his new job, Wamp sees his wife and two young children only on weekends (they didn't make the move to the capital). So every morning at 7:20 a.m., Wamp calls home-from his desk-before working 15- hour days.

Wamp hasn't always led such a regimented life. While attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the late 1970s, he became addicted to cocaine. He beat the habit in 1984 and turned into a churchgoing Baptist. He came clean about his past during his first campaign for Congress in 1992-and, despite last-minute personal attacks, he nearly knocked off an 18 year Democratic incumbent, who subsequently retired. in '94 Wamp dismissed his addiction as old news and used the "Contract With America" to win. He's adept at the populist gesture: during his campaign he proposed that members live in barracks at Washington-area military bases. (Once elected, he chose a small Capitol Hill apartment.) But Wamp delivers on substance, too: he refuses PAC money and backed the House's $17 million in spending cuts, though some struck his district.

Other Gingrichites have much bigger designs on Wamps projects. Wisconsin Rep. Scott King proposes selling TVA, which has been federally subsidized since the 1930s. Wamp, with a 6,000-person TVA payroll at risk, has joined Tennessee Rep. James Quillen, a 33-year House veteran, to protect the agency. Last week in Appropriations chairman Bob Livingston's office, Livingston cross-examined Wamp and Quillen about TVA. Worried, Wamp says: "It's pointed, line-by-line stuff.'@

Taking care of TVA is not Wamp's only ideological pirouette. He must also secure funding for Oak Ridge, where scientists worked on the Manhattan Project and later built nuclear weapons for the cold war. Today the DOE spends $2 billion there each year. But deficit hawks want to abolish Energy altogether. Wamp, who favors doing away with the Department of Education and "cutting other areas," opposes them. "This is like a mother protecting her cubs," he admits. Recognizing that his parochialism could fast turn into hypocrisy, Wamp ties his support of local special interests to their performance. Before Congress convened, he met with the TVA and said he wanted local bureaucratic snafus corrected. "Show me how responsive you can be," Wamp told them, "and I'll defend you."

If Wamp gets his way, government will ultimately be trimmer -but it will also be largely intact. "What makes us different from old-fashioned right-wingers," Gingrich told NEWSWEEK, "is that we know that we have to get to a balanced budget, but we can't do it by running over people. In the long run, it doesn't do you any good to pass a bill that gets repudiated at the next election."

And elections aren't far from Wamp's mind. One late winter Saturday, he was back home in tiny Spencer, high in the Tennessee hills, to report on the 100 Days attack on the welfare state. Yet he opened his speech to constituents that day with a bit of old-fashioned political pork: a $494,000 grant for a new industrial park. "That's federal dollars," Wamp beamed, "coming right here." Then he was off on an eloquent antiWashington pitch. "The federal government," he boomed, "should not be all things to all people." Unless, of course, they're your people.