Warren Rudman’s legacy laid groundwork for ‘fiscal cliff’ negotiations

November 20, 2012

Former senator Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) (The Washington Post)

The death of former senator Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) is especially poignant at this moment in American politics, both because of the fiscal challenges facing the country and because Congress is now all-but devoid of moderate lawmakers like him.

Rudman died Tuesday at 82 after a long illness. He won two terms to the U.S. Senate, where he served as vice chairman of the Iran-Contra Commission, served on the Senate Ethics Committee and investigated the “Keating Five” and fully supported the nomination of David H. Souter to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. When Rudman retired in 1992, Bill Clinton asked him to serve as treasury secretary, but he declined, and Clinton later appointed him to the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

“He never let politics stand in the way of doing what was right, and that’s why he had the absolute respect of Republicans and Democrats,” Vice President Biden said Tuesday.

“Warren’s fierce independence and commitment to always placing the national interest over political expediency set a high standard and served as an inspiration to a generation of public servants, especially me,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement noting Rudman’s death.

“As a Senator, Warren worked with everyone, and was respected by everyone, both Republicans and Democrats,” McCain added. “He repeatedly reached across the aisle to address America’s greatest challenges.”

In a similar statement, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) noted Rudman’s independence and called him “a leader in the cause of fiscal responsibility.”

Indeed, Rudman’s concern for the nation’s fiscal policy will most likely will be his enduring legacy. President Obama on Tuesday called him “an early advocate for fiscal responsibility,” adding that “leaders on both sides of the aisle would be well served to follow Warren’s example of common-sense bipartisanship.”

When he retired, Rudman joined with Democrats to establish the nonpartisan Concord Coalition to raise concerns about the nation’s fiscal policy — 20 years before fiscal policy became the leading issue of concern in Washington. His work with the group came after he joined with Sens. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (D-S.C.) and Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) in 1985 to enact the first binding spending constraints on the federal budget. The Gramm–Rudman–Hollings Act was designed to trim the federal deficit, but it ultimately didn’t work, despite their best efforts.

Regardless, it was the inspiration for the series of cuts and tax increases currently facing Washington. In his book, “The Price of Politics,” The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward recounts how lawmakers learned that the White House wanted a plan similar to the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings proposal to compel lawmakers to reach an agreement.

In late July 2011, White House officials came to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) with an idea for a compulsory trigger. When White House officials presented Reid with the idea, he:

… bent down and put his head between his knees, almost as if he was going to throw up or was having a heart attack. He sat back up and looked at the ceiling. “A couple of weeks ago,” he said, “my staff said to me that there is one more possible” enforcement mechanism: sequestration. He said he told them, “Get the hell out of here. That’s insane. The White House surely will come up with a plan that will save the day. And you come to me with sequestration?”

Well, it could work, [White House Budget Director Jack] Lew and [White House legislative affairs director Rob] Nabors explained.

What would the impact be?

They would design it so that half the threatened cuts would be from the Defense Department. … The idea was to make all of the threatened cuts so unthinkable and onerous that the supercommittee [tasked with making additional cuts] would do its work and come up with its own deficit reduction plan.

Lew and Nabors went through a laundry list of programs that would face cuts.

“This is ridiculous,” Reid said.

That’s the beauty of a sequester, they said, it’s so ridiculous that no one ever wants it to happen. It was the bomb that no one wanted to drop. It actually would be an action-forcing event.

“I get it,” Reid said finally.

But most congressional leaders and their staffs were unfamiliar with the concept of a spending trigger and spent longer hours learning how the plan would work, according to Woodward.

Whether automatic triggers compel lawmakers and the White House to reach a deal in the coming weeks remains to be seen — but Rudman and his colleagues earn the credit (or blame) for hatching the idea.

In a 2006 Washington Post op-ed, Rudman also voiced support for a bipartisan commission to examine the nation’s fiscal future. The proposal, co-authored by former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), laid out a five-point plan for such a panel. Though many other lawmakers also supported and proposed such a commission, many of their ideas were incorporated in the establishment of the 2011 Simpson-Bowles Commission.

“In the end, of course, elected representatives, not a commission, will have to make the hard decisions,” the pair wrote. “But a commission that produced solutions with meaningful bipartisan support would provide a catalyst for action. If Congress were required to vote on the commission’s recommendations, opponents would be challenged to produce solutions of their own.”

That is exactly what is happening today.

Also worth noting is Rudman’s decision to retire from the Senate. As The Post’s Robert J. Samuelson wrote shortly after he announced his plans to retire in April 1992:

Rudman … hit a raw nerve the other week by announcing he won’t seek reelection. Rudman, one of Congress’s most respected members, said he’s frustrated. Government is spending itself into bankruptcy, and the problem is political leaders (in Congress and the White House) who won’t tell voters the truth — along with voters who don’t want to hear it.

History sure has a way of repeating itself sometimes, doesn’t it?

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Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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