Every two years, 18-term Kentucky Rep. William H. Natcher, 79, gives a speech to new members of Congress about what it takes to be a good congressman. “I tell them to let the money alone and not accept honorariums or campaign contributions,” he says. They don’t listen.
In 1988 House members spent an average of $359,000 on their campaigns, much of it raised from groups with a keen interest in matters upon which the legislators would vote. And many lawmakers pocketed $26,850 (the legal limit) in “honoraria,” mostly for speeches to these same groups.
The appearance of impropriety can be as damaging as impropriety itself—and Congress has not been looking good. First came the long, acrimonious wrangle over House Speaker Jim Wright’s book royalties and oil-well profits and his wife’s apparently do-nothing job that ended with his resignation. Then Democratic whip Tony Coelho of California stepped down to avoid an investigation into his personal finances. The fire storm on Capitol Hill has abated for now, but several other congressmen’s financial dealings are reportedly under investigation. Money talks, and in the halls of Congress its voice is hard to ignore.
It’s not that all congressmen want to be rich; they just want to be congressmen. And to run a successful campaign, everybody knows, costs a fortune. Everybody, that is, except Bill Natcher. His idea of campaigning is to drive alone through the towns of central Kentucky’s rural Second District, an area best known as the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln and the home of Fort Knox. He parks his car on some side street (where he doesn’t have to feed the meter), gets out and talks to people. He has never taken a poll, has no advance men and no press secretary. He accepts no campaign contributions. None.
“I made up my mind as a teenager,” says Natcher, “that if I ever was elected to the House or the Senate, I was going to do it right.” He insists he would rather be defeated than accept a campaign contribution—but he never has been defeated. His last close call was in 1982, when four challengers threw $400,000 against him in the Democratic primary. He spent $12,234 of his own salary, won 60 percent of the vote and cruised comfortably through the general election.
“If I was interested in money,” says Natcher, “I wouldn’t be here.” He lives with Virginia, his wife of 52 years, in a modest rent-controlled apartment in Washington, D.C. His prize possession is the 1968 Chevy Impala he drives to his congressional office, where he starts opening—and answering—the mail before 7 A.M. No doubt he could have made better money as a lawyer back in Kentucky, but he never would have made the Guinness Book of World Records, as he has in Congress. You can look it up: Natcher, as he likes to point out in his single annual press release, has never missed a roll call or quorum call since he was sworn in on Jan. 6, 1954. As of last Monday (June 12), he had voted 15,983 straight times.
The record is not entirely an enviable one: A congressman’s time can often be better spent elsewhere than on the House floor, and even Natcher describes himself as a “hostage” to the streak he is now loath to break. But it does testify to his devotion to duty; Natcher has never taken a junket, nor has he absented himself when politically risky issues had to be decided. “I believe you should stand up and be counted,” he says simply.
He is counted, mostly, as a middle-of-the-road Democrat who made news outside his native state primarily as the former chairman of the District of Columbia subcommittee, where for 18 years he kept an iron grip on the capital’s budget. Though his legislative achievements have been modest, his meticulous fairness is universally respected, and his colleagues have often turned to him to take the gavel during contentious debates. “Bill Natcher runs the House as a parliamentarian better than anyone I’ve ever seen,” said former Speaker Tip O’Neill.
Now second in seniority on the House Appropriations Committee, Natcher has been in a good position to take care of the folks back in his Old Kentucky Home. “We have five new lakes in my district,” he says proudly. “I brought in 100 new industries, the National Guard, airports, hospitals. We’ve come a long way.”
That political journey is detailed in Natcher’s diaries, which he adds to religiously at least once a week. Every time he completes 300 pages, he has them bound in leather by the Government Printing Office—at his own expense, of course. He is now up to Volume 51, page 14,144. “I respect and love the House of Representatives,” he wrote a while back, “and sincerely believe it is the greatest legislative body in the world.” The feeling is mutual. Whenever Natcher presides over House debate, he receives a standing ovation, for a very old-fashioned reason: He has earned it.
—James S. Kunen, Garry Clifford in Washington, D.C.