Players: John M. Spratt Jr.
Sounding the Alarm on Nuclear Proliferation
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2004; Page A21
The Armed Services Committee was not exactly the assignment the self-described South Carolina country lawyer imagined for himself when he arrived as a House of Representatives rookie in 1983.
He tried to find his way onto Energy and Commerce, to no avail. He would have loved a spot on Ways and Means, but no go. Armed Services was where a spare seat awaited 40-year-old Democratic Rep. John M. Spratt Jr.
"You could understand why people weren't exactly enthralled with the subject matter," Spratt recalled, "because the hearings were dull as dishwater."
From those beginnings, fueled by a puzzle-solver's patience for detail and an education fancier than he readily lets on, Spratt has become an expert on U.S. nuclear policy and one voice among a devoted few on Capitol Hill sounding the alarm about atomic danger.
Now, talking about weapons design, he says things in casual conversation such as, "You've got the HE's side-by-side with the RVs." (Translation: High explosives are close to the reentry vehicle.)
He also says, "The threat of a fire next time, a nuclear incident, is real enough that we should be devoting much more attention."
When Spratt, the House Budget Committee's senior Democrat, examines President Bush's nonproliferation budget requests, he sees an approach he calls "politically correct" but "not aggressive at all. You don't get the impression that it's being pushed as a big priority."
Bush administration officials dispute that assessment, of course. Last week, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced $450 million in spending over the next decade to retrieve enriched uranium from around the world.
But the polite and amiable Spratt is politely and amiably unimpressed. He figures that "in a budget growing this fast" -- defense spending has grown from less than $300 billion a year to more than $400 billion a year -- "surely if you wanted, you could find more money for nonproliferation."
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, describes Spratt as "the most influential House Democrat on defense and nonproliferation issues." In January, he became assistant to the House Democratic leader.
Political science professor Robert Botsch of the University of South Carolina at Aiken, describes Spratt as a deficit hawk who is "not flamboyant. Quiet. But when it comes to talking about future generations paying for today's spending, he gets pretty exercised."
But Spratt, 61, is an accidental nuclear specialist. A history major from Davidson College who makes references to Talleyrand, he reached Congress at a moment when he was beginning to think his hopes for a House seat had passed. Six days before the primary in 1982, the incumbent dropped out and Spratt saw his chance.
"Frankly," he said one recent afternoon as he crossed Independence Avenue to the Capitol, "it's something I always wanted to do."
As a boy, he helped his father, a prominent Democrat in small-town York, S.C., with political campaigns. At York High School, Spratt was elected president of the student body. At Davidson, ditto. He won a Marshall Scholarship that sent him to Oxford, where he studied economics and politics. Then came Yale Law School and the Army.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. used a seat on the Armed Services Committee to develop his niche: U.S. nuclear policy.
(Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
John M. Spratt Jr.
Title: Member of U.S. House of Representatives, Democrat of South Carolina.
Education: Bachelor's degree, Davidson College; master's in philosophy, politics and economics, Oxford University (Marshall Scholarship); law degree, Yale University.
Family: Married, three daughters.
Career highlights: Captain, U.S. Army; private law practice; county attorney; bank president; insurance company owner.
Favorite movie: "High Noon."
Favorite food: Bill Neal's oyster pie.
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