A Powerhouse for the Poor

By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, May 4, 2007

You often hear that the poor and working people don't have a voice in Washington, that they invariably lose out to special interests that give big campaign contributions or can mobilize a vast membership.

As it turns out, this bit of conventional wisdom is wrong for one reason: Bob Greenstein and his crew at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

For the past 25 years -- starting with the Reagan budget cuts of the 1980s, through the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1990s and continuing through the Bush tax cuts and entitlement reforms -- Greenstein & Co. have been there for every hearing, every amendment and every budget reconciliation, ensuring that the interests of the poor and working class are considered.

Their weapons in these battles are reliable data, sound analysis and an ability to deliver it when needed. They know when and how to cut and deal. And thanks largely to the center's work, programs like food stamps, nutrition for mothers and children, and the earned income tax credit have grown despite decades of cuts in domestic programs.

"They are simply the most effective lobbyists on social issues in Washington, no question about it," says Ron Haskins, a former Republican staff member on the House Ways and Means Committee now at the Brookings Institution. "And I ought to know, because I was often on the other side."

"They are the national conscience on issues having to do with income and poverty," says Wendell Primus, a policy adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who worked at the center during the late 1990s after bolting from the Clinton administration over welfare reform.

"They've given low-income people a seat at the table," Charlie Rangel, the newly installed chairman of Ways and Means, told the thousand people gathered at the Washington Hilton last week for the center's 25th anniversary gala.

When was the last time you heard of a thousand people paying money to celebrate a liberal think tank -- let alone one with a name so wonkish that even the evening's emcee, Mark Shields, declared its survival for a quarter-century miraculous?

It hasn't just survived, it has thrived. The center has grown into a $13 million-a-year operation with a staff of more than 80, affiliated organizations in 21 states and a small but growing international division. Its money comes from some of the country's blue-chip foundations, including Ford, Rockefeller, MacArthur, Casey, Packard and Mott.

No doubt one thing that attracts the foundations is that the center mixes social advocacy with fiscal responsibility. It's easy, of course, to be a liberal against big deficits when Ronald Reagan or George Bush is running up big deficits by cutting taxes for the well-to-do. But Greenstein is a pay-as-you-go man for all political seasons.

Back when the federal government was running surpluses, Greenstein annoyed some of his traditional allies by advocating saving much of the money for future Social Security benefits. He's the rare liberal who's willing to say that some benefit cuts will be necessary as part of a plan to keep Social Security solvent. Even now he is warning liberals that if they think the long-term deficit can be tamed simply by reversing the Bush tax cuts, "they will be sorely disappointed."

Greenstein is a Washington original who managed to build an enduring institution through sheer brilliance and force of personality. As I've learned from painful experience, you never want to get into a policy argument with Bob because he'll bury you in facts and detailed section-by-section analysis. He still edits nearly everything that goes out of his shop. He almost never uses a computer and only recently got a BlackBerry, but for incoming e-mails only.

Although Greenstein can be an exacting taskmaster, that hasn't prevented him from attracting a talented staff that, last year alone, churned out 230 analyses on a wide range of budget, tax and social policy issues.

"They have a wonk for everything," says my Post colleague, Ruth Marcus, who says that she can get "any number that ever appeared in any federal budget document at any time of day" by calling the center's budget guru, Richard Kogan. Legislative director Ellen Nissenbaum, a 23-year veteran, may well have the best Rolodex anywhere of Hill staffers, civil servants, political activists and journalists. And there is nobody who understands the complex interaction between federal and state laws better than deputy director Iris Lav.

While this crew is renowned for its dogged advocacy, the dirty little secret about them is that they're very effective in working with people they don't agree with.

The center was among liberal groups that criticized President Bill Clinton for not vetoing the Republican version of welfare reform, predicting it would throw a million Americans into poverty. But two days after Clinton signed the legislation, Greenstein was back at the White House, eventually helping roll back some of the bill's most draconian provisions.

Similarly, although the center has railed against Bush's tax cuts since 2001, that didn't stop it from working with GOP sponsors and staff to make sure more low-income families would be able to take full advantage of an expanded child-care credit.

Indeed, getting good provisions added to bad bills has become a core competency for the center, which after all has had to deal with Republican presidents or congresses for much of its 25-year history. Even in the best of times, that's not easy for advocates who believe passionately in their cause. But in a political environment rife with ideological warfare and poisoned by partisanship, the center's knack for getting things done sets its apart from . . . well, from just about everybody else in Washington.

Steven Pearlstein can be reached atpearlsteins@washpost.com.

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