Livingston’s collegial approach to governing, however, is unlikely to change the GOP’s policies of the last four years. Livingston and Gingrich may differ in style, but on political issues they see eye-to-eye: Both are pro-business, pro-defense, and anti-abortion southern Republicans. And if Gingrich often seemed a man at odds with himself, Livingston has his own contradictions. The Lousiana congressman takes pride in his reputation as a fiscal conservative, but he has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars back to his district and looks after industries that have contributed generously to his campaigns. Livingston is universally hailed as a straight shooter, but his positions on ethics policing have made it a lot easier for his colleagues to escape scrutiny for questionable influence peddling. The future speaker may make sure the trains run on time in the House, but he’s not going to push it to become a more open or accountable institution. “It’s a new driver, but it’s the same car, and the same gas in the tank,” says Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), who is the ranking Democratic member on the Appropriations Committee Livingston chairs. “The legislative result won’t be much different.”
Look at Robert Linlithgow Livingston’s heritage, and his ascension to the speakership seems to have been programmed into his bloodline. No fewer than 20 of his forebears have served in government. His namesake, Robert Livingston, helped draft the Declaration of Independence, administered the oath of office to George Washington, and played a key role in the negotiation of the Louisiana Purchase. Representative Livingston looks so much like the statue of his New York ancestor on display in the U.S. Capitol you’d think he’d posed for it.
For all of his aristocratic ancestry, however, Livingston did not have a privileged upbringing. His father was an alcoholic who left the family when Livingston was six and a half years old. While his mother struggled to raise two children in New Orleans on a secretary’s salary, his father left for New York, and then relocated to Spain to avoid paying child support. Livingston worked in the summers at Avondale shipyards from the time he was 14 to help out at home. After a year at Tulane, and a stint in the Navy, he met his father in Europe. “When he was sober, it was great,” Livingston recalled. “And when he wasn’t sober, it wasn’t so great. I saw him a couple of times when he was sick after that. He died when he was 51.” What effect did the experience have on his political career? “I was a quick and immediate co-sponsor of Henry Hyde’s alimony bill to allow mothers to pursue deadbeat dads across state lines,” he says. “Frankly, if we’d had that law on the books when I was growing up, my mother, sister, and I probably wouldn’t have lived in the circumstances we did.”
After earning his law degree at Tulane, Livingston worked as a federal prosecutor for six years. Then, in 1976, with all of $5,000 in the bank, Livingston ran for Congress. “I lost that race,” he says. “And ABC News followed the man who beat me as its Freshman, from the time he was sworn in in January to the day he went to prison in July.” Livingston won the special election that followed, and he’s had only token opposition for his seat ever since.
Throughout his political career, Livingston has forged good relationships with politicians from across the aisle. In 1987, after an unsuccessful bid for the Governorship, he co-hosted a fundraising party to help one of his opponents retire his campaign debt. “Remember, this is when I was a Democrat, and we had had some tough things to say about each other in the race,” says Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin, who later switched over to the Republican party. “But he put all of that aside to do a very generous thing. I think that tells you a lot about him.” Livingston also works well with Rep. Obey. “He’s one of my closest friends in the House,” says the Wisconsin legislator. “I left Livingston a bottle of scotch in the desk [he vacated when the Democrats lost control of the House].” And in an unusual move, Livingston allowed some key Democratic staffers to remain in their jobs when he took over Appropriations in 1994. “I knew that the worst thing to do would be to fire everyone and bring in ideologues,” says Livingston. “So I had a heart-to-heart with the staff and I told them, ‘If you’re a die-hard Democrat committed to a liberal agenda, we don’t want you. But if you’re a professional committed to making this committee work, I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican.’ And by and large, it’s worked out. We have a great professional staff.”
Despite his willingness to overlook party differences, Livingston is a conservative Republican. This is the man, after all, who wrote the “Three Strikes” law, which automatically puts criminals convicted of three felonies in jail for life without parole, even if the felonies are non-violent; voted to abolish Americorps and the Departments of Energy and Commerce; and advocates doing away with the tax code by the year 2002. A self-defined fiscal conservative, he is not pleased with the pork-laden, 40 lb. omnibus bill passed in November, and he insists he did not participate in its final negotiation. But whether he was involved in the final days of horse trading or not, Livingston managed to look after some key constituencies.
His fingerprints, for example, were all over a provision allowing oil companies to underpay the government for the fuel they drill off federal lands. Currently, the industry determines the price of oil upon which royalties are calculated – and as you might expect, they pay below the market rate. The Mineral Management Service says the industry is bilking Uncle Sam of $5.5 million a month. And it’s not only the federal government that is being stiffed: A chunk of the royalties go to environmental conservation funds, Native American reservations, and public school systems. The Interior Department attempted to increase companies’ contributions, but Livingston slapped an eight-month freeze on the proposal. It’s not too difficult to see why: Louisiana’s economy revolves around the oil industry. And energy companies, in the words of a former government official, contribute generously to candidates to make sure their views are heard. In the 1997-98 campaign cycle, Livingston raked in $72,700 from oil and natural gas interests, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Livingston has also looked out for his old employer Avondale Shipyards, steering more than $1 billion in federal contracts to the company. As the congressman points out, it’s not rare for politicians to promote their districts’ military industries – Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott hustles deals on behalf of Ingalls Shipbuilding and former-Senator William Cohen secured contracts for Bath Iron Works in Maine. But Avondale has the distinction of paying its workers about a third less than any other private shipyard in the country, according to the AFL-CIO. Worker safety is another concern: 30 workers have died at Avondale since 1972, by far the highest number in the industry. These bleak figures spurred workers to vote to join a union in 1993. Contract negotiations with Avondale’s management should have followed, but the company insists the election was tainted with fraud, and has appealed the vote results to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. In the meantime, says the AFL-CIO, Avondale illegally dismissed 28 workers who organized on behalf of the union. “It’s a matter for the courts to determine,” says Livingston. “I hope the administration doesn’t leap into that fray unilaterally, without allowing the courts to decide.”
Aside from his ties to Avondale, Livingston has long been a champion of defense interests. He was one of the most vocal supporters of the so-called Star Wars missile defense system during the Reagan years, and in this past legislative session he earmarked $1 billion for a less ambitious ballistic missile defense program. He is the top recipient in the House of contributions from defense contractors: In the 1997-98 campaign cycle, corporations such as Lockheed Martin and Texatron gave him $128,500. And Livingston has been a friend to those companies – while he cut social programs with gusto in his first two years at Appropriations, he resisted even the smallest reduction in defense spending. In 1995, freshman Rep. Mark Neumann (R-Wis.) refused to vote for the defense package Livingston had worked out with Senate leaders on the grounds it was too expensive.
When discussing his record, Livingston accentuates his pro-defense and budget-cutting credentials. But it is in the area of Congressional ethics that Livingston has truly left his mark. There are three groups that oversee and enforce members conduct: the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the House Ethics Committee, and the Justice Department. Livingston has had a hand in sapping the effectiveness of all three.
Waging battle against congressional watchdogs seems an odd fit for a man with a Mr.-Smith-Goes-to-Washington reputation for honesty. But advocates for more rigorous congressional ethics standards count Livingston as one of their most effective adversaries. “Livingston wants to defang these groups to protect congressional members,” says Fred Wertheimer, head of Democracy 21, an advocacy group for campaign finance reform. “That’s his interest, even if it comes at the expense of protecting the public’s interest in integrity in government.”
Livingston’s primary target has been the Federal Election Committee, the agency that enforces campaign laws. Over the past four years, the FEC has brought an unsuccessful suit against Gopac (the political action committee previously headed by Gingrich), launched an inquiry into the Christian Coalition, and attempted to ban “soft money” raised and spent by political parties. As one would imagine, the agency has few fans in the Republican party. But Livingston’s vendetta may be linked to some personal run-ins he’s had with the Commission.
During the 1977 special election for his House seat, the FEC conducted a random audit of Livingston’s campaign. There was no evidence of any wrongdoing, but Livingston was galled by the experience. And ten years ago, the FEC dropped a complaint Livingston filed against his primary challenger. The Commission agreed the case had merit. While the Livingston’s challenger had raised only $2,880 for his congressional bid, his parents won the Publishers Clearinghouse sweepstakes during the campaign, and they helped their son secure a $100,000 bank loan. He illegally slipped the money into his campaign chest. After the election, the challenger skipped town for Scotland, and the FEC decided not to pursue the case. Aside from the fact there was no chance that parents’ money was corrupting, “the guy only got about 15 percent of the vote,” says an official familiar with the case. “It wasn’t worth pursuing. But Livingston has never let the FEC forget it.”
Livingston does not mince words describing the FEC. “They are absolutely worthless,” he says. “I think the agency should be dissolved and the Justice Department should be in charge of looking into real infractions.” Short of that, Livingston believes the Commission should focus its efforts on acquiring and disclosing candidates’ campaign records, rather than rigorously investigating alleged wrongdoings.
Livingston has used his position at Appropriations to make sure the FEC adopts his priorities. He pared down the agency’s budget and stipulated that funds be spent to modernize its computer system. Updating the Commission’s information system did allow the agency to post campaign records more quickly, but a part of the FEC’s job is verifying whether the information they are reporting is true. That requires sending investigators into the field. But Livingston’s tighter budgets and spending constraints have forced the agency to cut back on its investigative staff. “We need human beings to conduct these probes,” says Acting FEC Chairman Scott Thomas. “Without them, we’ve been forced to throw out cases where there was evidence of wrongdoing.” According to the FEC press office, the agency had to drop 39 cases this year because the Commission didn’t have enough staff to investigate them before the five-year statute of limitations expired. Last year the agency threw out 79 cases.
Livingston also earmarked $750,000 of the FEC’s budget to pay Price Waterhouse Coopers to audit the Commission. It was the second evaluation of the FEC that Livingston has ordered: In 1996 he dispatched investigators from his staff to report on the functioning of the agency. The group found no evidence of mismanagement, but its final report did memorably refer to the FEC as “a self-licking ice-cream cone.” Congressman Livingston is not commissioning the audits to help the agency run more effectively, says Wertheimer. “When the Appropriations staff investigation didn’t bring back what he wanted, he tried again with this outside audit,” he says. “He’s trying to cripple the FEC.”
Aside from directing the agency’s budget priorities, Livingston wants to control who is working at the Commission. Two years ago, he spearheaded an effort to have three members of the five-person press department removed. Livingston said it was all in the name of streamlining operations. But watchdog groups counter that it was just another part of Livingston’s effort to undermine the basic function of the FEC: tracking campaign violations and releasing the information to the press. After Democrats and reporters raised a furor over the proposed cuts, Livingston dropped the request.
He’s sure to be more tenacious in his drive to ditch the FEC’s general counsel. The counsel recommends to the FEC’s six commissioners which cases the agency should take on. The commissioners are evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, and no probes can be launched without four of the six members jumping on board. Under counsel Larry Noble, the agency has instigated a number of high- profile cases against Republican groups and congressional members. And while at least one Republican commissioner authorized the investigations, it is the general counsel’s head Republicans are clamoring for.
A GOP-backed proposal to reform the hiring practices at the FEC could well leave Mr. Noble without a job. Currently, four of six commissioners must vote for the appointment of the FEC’s general counsel and staff director. The same number can give those employees the boot at any time. This year, Livingston tacked on a provision to an appropriations bill that would have required the FEC’s top staff officials to be reconfirmed every four years by at least four commissioners. So under that plan, the FEC’s three Republican commissioners could vote Mr. Noble out.
The amendment did not make it into law, but Livingston promises to push for the proposal “again and again” – for the sake of good government. “When you’re talking about appointed officials, you need term limits,” he says. Larry Noble, he points out, has been at the FEC since the mid-’70s, and the agency would profit from fresh blood. But Wertheimer counters that a more effective FEC is the last thing Livingston has in mind. “Livingston is trying to fire a general counsel who is carrying out law enforcement policies in a way he doesn’t like,” says Wertheimer. “It’s a total abuse of power.”
While the FEC polices candidates’ actions on the campaign trail, the House Ethics Committee monitors and enforces representatives’ behavior once they are in office. Livingston has had a big influence on the operation of this watchdog, too. In 1997, after the Ethics Committee fractured along partisan lines over charges levied against former Speaker Gingrich, the House leadership appointed a bipartisan task force to overhaul the Committee’s rules. Livingston served as co-chair, and the group’s recommendations ultimately made it much more difficult for citizens to file complaints against members.
Originally, outside groups could register charges against congressmen if they found a representative who would sponsor their complaint, or could obtain letters from three members officially refusing to do so. It was no easy task to find representatives who were willing to put their names on a letter of refusal. Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, a Ralph Nader watchdog group, struggled for seven months before he obtained the three letters he needed to file a complaint against Transportation Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.). Shuster’s relationship with lobbyist Ann Eppard appeared to break every ethics rule imaginable. Eppard had worked for Shuster for over 20 years before she set up her own lobbying firm, and continued to raise money for the Congressman after she entered the private sector. While federal law prohibited her from lobbying the Congressman for a one year “cooling off” period, Eppard was a daily presence in Shuster’s office. In addition, Shuster actually lived in Eppard’s house while Congress was in session.
Ruskin says he was never optimistic the commission would take a tougher stance on congressional policing. But he knew the writing was on the wall when Livingston’s task force hired Ann Eppard’s attorney as its outside counsel. “The fix was in,” he says. It could well be coincidental, but the reworking of the ethics rules ended up benefiting Shuster (and by extension, Eppard). Gone was the option of obtaining the three letters of refusal to file an ethics complaint. Now groups will have to find a representative who will actually sponsor their charges in order to launch a probe. That has proven to be essentially impossible. When Ruskin attempted to amend his complaint against Shuster earlier this year, he was unable to persuade any member of Congress to write the letter of transmittal. That doesn’t bother Livingston. “We had to get rid of the three blind monkey rule,” he says. “It was a bipartisan task force, and we put together a good package.”
The ultimate arbitrator of members’ conduct is the Justice Department. And while Livingston says he wants the Department to take over the work of the FEC, he helped pass legislation this year that will make it tougher for Justice attorneys to conduct investigations. Specifically, the new regulations will force federal prosecutors to adhere to state laws when they are conducting probes. There is a 180-day waiting period before the new regulation goes into effect. But if it is implemented, it could have some disastrous consequences.
Take Louisiana, the state Livingston represents. Under local laws, only state police are allowed to apply for wiretaps. So if federal prosecutors were conducting an investigation in New Orleans, they would have to seek approval from the police for a wiretap order. And in the event that the Big Easy’s law enforcement agents were the targets of investigation (not an implausible scenario, given their reputation for corruption) it would be a lot harder for the government to put together a case.
Livingston seems to have championed the legislation because he is personally close with the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joseph McDade (R-Pa.). McDade, who retired this year, was accused of accepting $100,000 in illegal gifts from defense contractors. And while the former representative appears to have employed questionable judgment, a jury acquitted him of bribery charges after deliberating for less than an hour. Livingston testified as a character witness in McDade’s trial, and he is obviously infuriated at the way his friend was treated. “McDade was railroaded,” he says. “He was stuck with an overaggressive prosecutor and an insensitive judge. It cost him eight years of his life, and I have great sympathy for what he went through.” But what about the flaws in McDade’s legislation? “The attorney general had an input into the process. She wasn’t happy with the whole bill, but she did have an input,” responds Livingston. “And I can’t say the law won’t be changed.”
Livingston’s cavalier attitude to the impact of the legislation is unsettling, but it shouldn’t be surprising. The future Speaker of the House isn’t interested in helping congressional watchdogs do their work. He’s an old-style pol who wants to protect members from having to answer questions about how they run their campaigns or wheel and deal with lobbyists. At a time when special interest groups are dominating the Congress more than ever before, that’s not good news. The present system hardly serves the interest of the public. But with Livingston at the helm, you can be sure things are going to stay just the way they are.