The Republican In Clinton's Face

Dick Armey has emerged as the House's chief budget-basher

When Representative Dick Armey of Texas launched a crusade in 1987 to close obsolete military bases, Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) flatly told him it couldn't be done. Two years later, Armey's bipartisan coalition dealt the Establishment a stunning defeat, proving that persistence, brains, and timing can occasionally overcome the huge handicap of being a House


Even as Bill Clinton turns to Armey's base-closing commission to help slash the military budget, the Texas economist has emerged as the President's most effective tormentor on Capitol Hill. His combination of substantive accomplishment and blunt talk is what led the House GOP to give Armey its No.3 leadership job last fall. "We feel he will articulate the Republican philosophy in a clear and focused and comprehensible way," says freshman Representative Martin R. Hoke (R-Ohio), who credits advice from Armey for helping him to beat incumbent Democrat Mary Rose Oakar in November.

TOO SHRILL? Few in Congress question Armey's intellect, but his ascension to chairmanship of the House Republican Conference raises the question of whether a true believer can succeed on compromise-driven Capitol Hill. "Dick Armey is going to find himself a nonplayer," says House Democratic Study Group Chairman Mike Synar (D-Okla.). "He's too shrill and has absolutely no effectiveness." But while Armey is every bit as conservative as House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), he has won the respect of some Democrats. "I have not seen in Armey the kind of personal nastiness and demagogic aspect that Gingrich has," says Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who worked with Armey to cut farm spending.

With the Democrats back in the White House, Armey, 52, sees his role as an "academic whistle-blower"--exposing the truth behind Clinton's budget. The tax hikes, he insists, are higher than the President says, the savings are smaller, and, despite a promise of "honesty in budgeting," the package has plenty of smoke and mirrors. At the White House recently, he told Clinton: "Your plan won't work. It is based on a faulty economic model which assumes that higher taxes will reduce the deficit and doesn't recognize they will slow the economy...If you pass this plan, you'll be a one-term President."

Republicans loved the insolence. "If the king has no clothes, Dick will point this out," says Representative Harris W. Fawell (R-Ill.). Adds GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio: "Armey takes it a step beyond just being another conservative. When you believe in something passionately, you'll fight to your dying breath for it."

Trained as a microeconomist, with a PhD from the University of Oklahoma, Armey keeps a dog-eared copy of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations in his office bookcase and has high regard for such conservative economists as Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell of Stanford University's Hoover Institute, and James M. Buchanan of George Mason University. "I've been accused of having faith in the market," Armey says. "I don't have faith, I have evidence."

NUTTY PROFESSOR. At first, Armey gained a reputation on the Hill as a nutty professor. As a freshman, he tried to save a few bucks by sleeping on a cot in the House gym. Evicted by then-Speaker Tip O'Neill, Armey retreated to an office sofa. He and his wife, Susan, now rent a house.

Armey sought to establish his seriousness by immersing himself in economic policy debates. Unlike most House Republicans, he has built a solid legislative record. In 1985, he helped sink "comparable worth" legislation that would have broadened the definition of equal pay for women. As the top Republican on the Joint Economic Committee in 1991, Armey blasted the Congressional Budget Office's economic forecasts and skewered contentions that the 1980s were bad for America. "To rely on the CBO for your understanding of the '80s is like relying on The Flintstones for your understanding of the Stone Age," he snaps.

In his new post, Armey has shown equal passion for tweaking the new Administration. His "rapid response team" provides lively quotations for reporters within minutes of a news event. But the Texan is still uncomfortable with some public-relations aspects of the job. Armey allowed a controversy over lobbyists underwriting the annual House GOP retreat near Princeton, N.J., to overshadow a policy-packed session. And after a recent joint press conference, Senator Gramm explained to Armey that he had drowned out his own words by nervously jangling his pocket change. Armey admits he's not a made-for-TV congressman. "I have always disdained ceremonial matters," he says. "I may not be good at it, but I'm learning things such as tact and diplomacy."

Graciousness won't always be easy. Democrats rule the House with an iron hand. And victories, such as the recent GOP effort to scrap four select committees, will be rare. But, laughs Armey, "My daddy always told me it was better to be persecuted than ignored."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE