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Officials, Experts Reflect on Lessons from Rudman as Fiscal Talks Begin

Nov. 23, 2012 - 04:22PM   |  
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The late New Hampshire GOP Sen. Warren Rudman, who died last week, once wrote he “wasn’t sure the glory of being a senator meant much if we were bankrupting America.”

As Republicans and Democrats in Washington begin talks about a massive deficit-reduction plan, both sides say they can learn a few things from the man the AARP hails as “the last bipartisan hero.”

Rudman was perhaps best known as the moderate who was crucial in helping liberal Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., and conservative Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, to push through Congress a 1985 bill that “created a series of deficit targets meant to balance the federal budget by 1991,” according to a University of California at Berkeley fact sheet.

The Korean War veteran sometimes is referred to as the “father of sequestration,” because had those targets not been met, “a series of across-the-board spending cuts” to defense and domestic programs “would automatically ensue,” as the Berkeley fact sheet states.

Sequestration is back in play today and has become a dirty word. But the bill Rudman and his two colleagues shepherded through both chambers — it was signed by President Ronald Reagan in December 1985 — is being hailed as an example, because it contained the kind of deficit-reduction plan that is required today to avoid twin $500 billion, 10-year cuts to planned defense and domestic spending.

“As an early advocate for fiscal responsibility, he worked with Republicans and Democrats alike to call attention to our nation’s growing deficit,” President Barack Obama said in a statement hours after the 82-year-old Rudman’s death. “And as we work together to address the fiscal challenges of our time, leaders on both sides of the aisle would be well served to follow Warren’s example of common-sense bipartisanship.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called Rudman “a leader in the cause of fiscal responsibility.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a former Democratic House Budget Committee chairman from California, said that Rudman “leaves behind a rich legacy of bipartisanship, compromise and dedication to the country that will continue to serve as an inspiration to all of those in public service.”

“Rudman was the third part of the three-part harmony that was Gramm-Rudman-Hollings,” said Dov Zakheim, a George W. Bush era Pentagon official who advised Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “You had a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican. Rudman was very critical in bringing those two sides together. There’s a clear lesson to be learned here.”

Zakheim said, “It’ll be highly problematic” for Congress and Obama to agree to issues ranging from extending a list of tax cuts, reforming the federal tax code, possibly raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, reforming domestic entitlement programs and some level of defense cuts.

“What Rudman bequeaths us with is that this is hard, but not impossible,” Zakheim said.

Gordon Adams, an American University professor who oversaw defense spending for President Bill Clinton’s administration, said there are differences between how Rudman and his mates used the threat of deep sequester cuts. Gramm, Rudman and Hollings saw the cuts as a chance to reduce spending.

“My sense at the time was that they meant it,” Adams said.

This time, the mechanism is more threat than savings technique, he said. “It wasn’t being used as a ‘sword of Damocles’ to force action, like it is now.”

In addition, the limits imposed by the 1985 legislation were simply postponed or raised, an avoidance that seems less plausible in the current political climate.

“As a budget management technique, it wasn’t that useful because people just fiddled with the cap,” Adams said.

Are there any Warren Rudmans on Capitol Hill in this era of bitter partisanship and unmovable ideological beliefs?

“Yes. And anyone who just dismisses that notion doesn’t know the Senate very well,” said Zakheim, who declined to name names. “There are people on both sides who are ready and willing to get this done.”

One lawmaker who might be stepping into that role is Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., a member of the so-called “gang of six,” a bipartisan group of upper-chamber lawmakers who quietly have been working on a deficit-paring plan.

Chambliss told a TV station in his home state late last week that avoiding the sequester cuts — and a “fiscal cliff” that economists say would be created if those cuts occur and tax cuts are allowed to expire — might require breaking the no-tax-hikes pledge many Republicans have made.

Taking aim at Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, Chambliss bluntly said: “I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge. If we do it his way, then we’ll continue in debt, and I just have a disagreement with him about that.”

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