Bartlett's barbs ruffle Congress but receive applause in Western Maryland

April 20, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- After three months in office, this much is clear about Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett: He is playing better at home than in Washington.

During his first 100 days in office, he has managed to offend Asians, feminists and fellow members of Maryland's delegation to Congress. But the 66-year-old Republican, elected to Congress at an age when most Americans are retiring, shows no signs of becoming part of the Washington establishment.

He makes it clear that he sees Congress, government and those who rely financially on government as the enemy. And he makes no apologies for his sticking to his agenda: "less government, less taxes, less regulation."

It is a philosophy that appeals to many of his constituents in conservative Western Maryland.

"I think you've got common sense," one voter told Mr. Bartlett at a Frederick town meeting. "I wish you had more company" on Capitol Hill.

But Mr. Bartlett's constant attacks on Congress and his lack of finesse in dealing with colleagues could undermine his effectiveness and, some fear, become an embarrassment to the Maryland delegation.

"Maybe he needs a little bit of smoothing down at the edges," concedes Rep. Helen Delich Bentley of Baltimore, a fellow Republican and a Bartlett mentor.

Not long after taking office, Mr. Bartlett offended Asians and other minorities by talking about the high percentage of Westinghouse scholarship winners who don't have "normal" names. He later apologized for the remarks.

He also enraged feminists with his defense of his chief aide, who was accused of "inappropriate behavior" by female staff members who said they were the object of unwanted physical contact and a sexist remark from the aide.

Finally, Mr. Bartlett alarmed colleagues in the Maryland delegation by refusing to cooperate with a routine request for federal disaster aid for the state.

"You have got to know when to go on your own and when to work with others," observes Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat and a master of the legislative process.

Mr. Cardin was referring to Mr. Bartlett's refusal to sign a letter from Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes' office supporting a request by the state for federal snow-removal aid after last month's blizzard. Even though his district was hardest hit by the storm, Mr. Bartlett said at the time that he "just couldn't see asking a federal government that has no money at all to fund something the state should be expected to pay for."

Now Mr. Bartlett denies that he and fellow Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest refused to sign and says they were simply waiting for information on how the money would be spent and that the letter was dispatched before they got the information.

Nevertheless, Mr. Bartlett said in an interview last week, "I had campaigned for 14 months that I wasn't going to increase the deficit. . . . The first chance I have to go to the public trough, I'm going to sign on?"

While the refusal had no impact on the White House decision to give Maryland limited aid, it raised eyebrows in the Maryland delegation. One Republican called it "stupid," while a Democrat said it was virtually unprecedented in a delegation long known for bipartisan unity when it comes to bringing pork home.

Another incident, potentially more serious in the view of some, involved the Maryland delegation's efforts to revive a Westinghouse contract for a radar-jammer that the Pentagon canceled in December after repeated test failures.

At a time when other members of the delegation were lobbying for revival of the project, Mr. Bartlett decided to make his own effort, even though the Westinghouse plants that lost 460 workers are not in his district. He wrote to Democratic Sen. David Pryor, a long-time critic of the project, whose clout in Washington has soared with the election of his fellow Arkansan and friend, Bill Clinton.

Mr. Bartlett asked other Marylanders to sign the letter, which was described as "acidic" and "insulting" by two who saw it.

"Members of the delegation had no interest in slamming the senator," one aide said. So a substitute was hastily drafted and sent. It told Senator Pryor that while members of the delegation ++ "respect your efforts on behalf of the taxpayers," doubts about the tests on which the cancellation is based "warrant your attention."

Mr. Bartlett acknowledges writing the original letter, though he denies that it was "critical" of Senator Pryor. Mr. Bartlett readily accepted the substitute, saying, "I had no pride of authorship."

The House is an institution where clout and effectiveness are based in part on seniority and working with one's colleagues. Nevertheless, says Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, the impact that freshmen, even those in the minority, can have in the House covers "an incredibly wide range," depending on background, the issues on which they focus, talent and "the luck of the draw."

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