Braving Cries of Protest, Bob Giaimo Tries a Balancing Act on the U.S. Budget

UPDATED 04/07/1980 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 04/07/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

As the man responsible for beginning the most improbable juggling act in recent Washington history—trying to balance the 1981 federal budget—Rep. Bob Giaimo (D., Connecticut) is about as popular as the Grinch who stole Christmas. Liberals, state and local officials and practically everyone who dines from the government pork barrel are muttering his name under their breath. But Giaimo, chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee, is not intimidated. At 6'3" and 230 pounds, he looks more like a bouncer than an 11-term congressman, and his physical size matches his determination. Moreover, he is relishing his turn in the spotlight. "Every interest group in America will be beating its way to Washington starting next week—and some are here already," he chortled after the committee approved the cuts he proposed. "Everybody is for holding the line until it hits them, and then it's 'Don't cut me. Cut the guy behind the tree.' The mayors are screaming that they already have federal money figured into their budgets. Well, too bad. The day of reckoning is here."

Giaimo (pronounced Jymo) can afford to talk tough. Last week he announced that he will not run for reelection this fall. "But the pressures over the budget don't make me want to leave," he insists. "If anything, they make me want to stay on." Then he points to a brass paperweight of Sisyphus, the mythical Greek doomed forever to roll a rock uphill, then watch it roll back down again. "All my life I've been pushing that rock up the hill," he says. "Now it's time to move on."

If Giaimo has his way, he will go out in a blaze of canceled Saturday mail deliveries and slashed federal revenue sharing. He would also defer a proposed national child health program, tighten the eligibility requirements for food stamps and chop the defense budget by $1.4 billion (mostly in peacetime support services). "America has been living beyond its means," he declares. "The money market is skittish. They're saying, 'Get your house in order, government!' That's what we're trying to do. But even in a time of crisis, I'm not so sure the House will really move. In the past they've never had the guts."

Giaimo's critics attack both the justice and logic of the cuts he wants to make. "I recognize the need for a balanced budget," says New York Rep. Stephen Solarz, "but this budget says 'yes' to the rich and 'no' to the poor." Snorts Ohio's Louis Stokes: "There isn't a member of the committee who doesn't know that balancing the budget will only reduce inflation about one-tenth of one percent. It's merely cosmetic." The critics appear to be in the minority; there is a growing consensus that, whatever the specifics, a balanced budget is at least a start toward curbing inflation. Besides, both men profess admiration for Giaimo himself. "He's gracious, persuasive and articulate," says Solarz, "and he can disagree without being disagreeable. He'll be sorely missed for his leadership."

The only son of well-to-do Sicilian immigrant parents, Giaimo grew up in North Haven, Conn., where his father was a banker. After graduating from Fordham, he attended the University of Connecticut Law School, where he met his wife, Marion, a classmate. An Army lieutenant during World War II, he practiced law with Marion after he left the service, and was elected to the House on his second try, in 1958. He is an avid golfer with a 20 handicap, who denies reports that he is an inveterate club tosser, but admits he has thrown an occasional tantrum. As his bulky frame suggests, his notion of personal belt tightening is somewhat less austere than his federal strategy. He dines out regularly on Italian and Chinese cuisine, then compensates the next morning by breakfasting on low-calorie breadsticks flown in from New York.

Proud of his role in what he regards as a historic battle for fiscal reform, Giaimo is content to let others continue the war. Last December he and Marion spent their first extended vacation at their condominium in Boca Raton, Fla., and he is looking forward to more of the same. "I never wanted to be an old man in Congress," he says. "I've seen it happen too often, and it's tragic. People stay because they have nowhere to go."

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