WASHINGTON -- Confronting head-on the legislative body he loves to hate, billionaire political watchdog Ross Perot brought his tough talk to Capitol Hill yesterday, provoking some contentious exchanges with lawmakers who accused the former presidential contender of listening more to applause than to facts.
Mr. Perot, speaking before the Joint Committee on Congress which is holding hearings on congressional reform, came armed with an arsenal of advice on everything from a complete ban on foreign lobbyists to an end to congressional perks to a "Pork of The Month" club that would point out wasteful government spending.
"The American people cannot be expected to sacrifice, and if my instincts are right, they're not going to be willing to take a tax increase while their elected servants continue to live lives of far, far, far greater opulence than they," said the Texan businessman, who pulled in 19 percent of the vote last November and now recruits members for his United We Stand, America organization.
The feisty billionaire populist, who has never really stopped campaigning since he put out his shingle as a presidential candidate last year, attracted a standing-room-only crowd to the capacious, wood-paneled Senate hearing room, among the largest on Capitol Hill.
He walked down the center aisle of the hearing room yesterday with the entire audience on its feet, some standing on chairs to see the Texan and some of his supporters yelling "Ross."
He quoted Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Cicero. In the colorful, no-nonsense style that appealed to 19 million voters last year, he told the members of Congress they should call in the Orkin man to get rid of all "the funny stuff that happens in the middle of the night around the Appropriations Committee" if they want people to cough up more money for taxes.
He brought out of his grab bag of greatest hits "the crazy aunt kept in the basement" -- his metaphor for the national debt that no one wants to talk about during elections -- saying she was out of the basement all throughout the last campaign. "And I think she went to the inaugural ball."
Aside from assailing Congress, the prince of deficit darkness took a number of swipes at President Clinton yesterday -- some of them roundabout, some squarely between the eyes -- in enumerating the problems with business in Washington, a drama he said looked like "Martians" to those outside the beltway.
He expressed serious doubt about the president's $30 billion stimulus package, saying such spending increases during a time of deficit problems were the equivalent of "giving a friend who's trying to stop drinking a liquor store of his own."
The American people, whom he said he was in "very close contact" with from his recent travels, want to see all the details of the president's economic plan and have it laid out in "plain language," Mr. Perot said.
"They want details, not sound bites. They do not want a program where tax and spending occurs first, with only a dream of cuts and savings at a later time."
He said the president misled the public with White House staff cuts that didn't amount to pay cuts, and suggested there was no one in the Clinton Cabinet who knew how to create jobs or run a business.
"I begged the new president to get some people in there who know how to make things work," he said.
Democratic Sen. Harry M. Reid of Nevada sharply took issue with Mr. Perot's facts and figures -- and his criticism of the president's top officials.
"In your 50 minutes of your opening statement, you gave us 45 minutes of sound bites and five minutes of material," Mr. Reid said.
"With all due respect, Ross, maybe you've become so enthused about listening to the applause you get that you don't stop and talk about the facts. . . . I listen to a lot of the advice that you give, but let me give you a little. I think you should check the facts a little more and stop listening to the applause so much."
Mr. Reid noted that the president's chief of staff, Thomas "Mack" McLarty, former chief executive officer of Arkla Inc., a $440 million gas utility, came from corporate America where he created a lot of jobs.
"Here's a guy in the oil and gas business who grew up as a lawyer," Mr. Perot shot back. "The company had a lot of financial problems while he was there."
When another senator pointed out that Mr. McLarty is not a lawyer, Mr. Perot responded: "OK, fine. You got one in the barrel. I hope you'll listen to him."
Later, when Arkansas Sen. David Pryor, a Democrat, also came to Mr. McLarty's defense, Mr. Perot said: "He is a fine man. I regret anything came up where everyone felt they had to fall on their swords to defend him."
After more railings against the ethical standards -- or lack thereof -- on Capitol Hill and Mr. Perot's contention that the American people believe "that our government officials are for sale," Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat from Indiana, asked:
"Do you really believe that most of us here are crooks? Are we really that bad?"
Mr. Perot said that Americans believe Congress is more responsive to special interests than to the people. And, he added, "We get funny talk we don't understand."