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Congressman Andrew Jacobs Is Mighty Tight with a Taxpayer's Buck

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The voter backlash in this month’s election threw a scare into many incumbent politicians in Washington, D.C., but maverick Congressman Andrew Jacobs, the Indianapolis Democrat, was sure he had nothing to worry about—and he was right. “It’s a question of squandering the taxpayers’ money,” he says. “That obviously is a part of what people are upset about.” In his 12 terms in the House of Representatives, Jacobs, 58, has waged a vigorous, at times quixotic, fight against fat-cat legislators who never met a perk they didn’t like. Indeed, Jacobs, who won reelection overwhelmingly this month, is so tight with a taxpayer dollar he could almost make Scrooge look like a spendthrift. He lavished a measly $8,600 on his campaign compared with the $400,000 congressional average. (Jacobs’s opponent conveniently spent only $13,000 in his losing effort.) “I always tell folks, ‘You get a big spender in the campaign, you get a big spender in Congress,’ ” he says. “It’s habit-forming, spending other people’s money.”

Consider: While members of Congress are allowed as many as 22 staffers, Jacobs gets by with 10; he steadfastly refuses to go on junkets; and rather than take advantage of House stamping privileges, the massive junk-mail operation that this year will cost taxpayers an estimated $79 million, he simply jots down his thoughts and sends them off to the op-ed pages of local papers in his district. Next year congressional salaries will go up to $125,000, but not for Jacobs, who refuses to accept more than $75,000. Earning that much, he says, “I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

Which may explain why he acts like an avenging angel on the subject of dubious government perks. To test the argument that former Presidents need a staff to answer the volumes of mail they receive, Jacobs has sent letters to Messrs. Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan. Nixon, Carter and Reagan never replied. Ford’s office, Jacobs later said, sent “the kind of card you get back from a mail-order house that says they don’t have the stuff they advertise.” Last year Jacobs also introduced a resolution to amend the U.S. criminal code, making it a crime for members of Congress to receive payment for speeches. To the surprise of no one, least of all Jacobs, the measure died in committee. “The only reason these gifts aren’t bribery,” he says, “is because Congress gets to say what bribery is.”

Over the years Jacobs’s cost-cutting crusade has sometimes rankled his colleagues. “I think Andy chooses to make these points and in the process loses a certain kind of effectiveness” because so few legislators ever go along, says Richard Boiling, a former Democratic representative from Missouri who is now writing a book on the House. For his part, Jacobs tries not to sound too self-righteous. He does concede, for instance, that some legislators might need more than $75,000 to live on, though he argues that a salary close to $90,000 should be more than enough to ensure a level of “genteel sufficiency.” And he cheerfully tells of how his innate cheapness once saved his life. In 1974, while trying to book a flight from Indianapolis to Washington, Jacobs was told that only first-class seats were available. Rather than have taxpayers cough up the extra $20, Jacobs booked an earlier flight so that he could get a coach seat. Later the original flight crashed as it neared Washington’s Dulles International Airport, killing all 92 people on board.

In a routine week Jacobs is in Washington from Tuesday through Thursday and then flies back to Indianapolis, where he works Fridays and Mondays in his local district office. He and his third wife, Kim Hood, a local television journalist in her mid-30s, have a son, James Andrew, 14 months, with another child on the way. When in Washington, Jacobs either sleeps on a sofa in his office or stays with friends in the area. At limes, frugality almost seems a religion with him. Wounded in the back while serving as a marine in the Korean War, he refuses to accept the veterans benefits he is entitled to on the grounds that he is in fine health.

All the same, Jacobs acknowledges that so numerous arc goodies and privileges bestowed on legislators, even he cannot avoid every last one. Each day he is in Washington he exercises in the free House gym, doing push-ups, lifting weights and sometimes swimming a few laps, and he also gets his hair trimmed at the subsidized House barbershop, which charges only $5. But he refuses to dine in the congressional restaurants, where the tab for a full meal is as little as $6 and which cost taxpayers more than $500,000 a year. “It’s a convenience,” says Jacobs, a vegetarian who whips up meals in his office microwave. “But it’s a convenience that ought to be paid for by those who eat there.”

—Bill Hewitt, Luchina Fisher in Washington