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And according to colleagues, Spratt’s departure represents a devastating brain drain. Not only was Spratt a high-ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, but he has also served as chairman or ranking member of the House Budget Committee since 1996. And he is one of the party’s experts on thorny subjects, including nuclear material and weapons production, ballistic defense and budget proceedings.
He isn’t the only repository of institutional and subject-matter knowledge lost from Democratic ranks. The GOP’s “shellacking” took down other stalwarts: House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (Mo.) and Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (Minn.). Rather than face a bitter and expensive campaign, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (Wis.) opted to retire.
A Trusted Source
“What John Spratt became, which is rare in politics, is a trusted source on the ramifications of decisions with respect to a number of issues,” Rep. George Miller says.
Miller, a blustery Californian, seems an unlikely ally of Spratt, with his courtly demeanor. Miller is one of the party’s liberal flamethrowers; Spratt is known for his moderate views and fiscal conservatism.
But the two men forged their odd-couple friendship in the early 1990s when then-Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.) appointed them to jointly lead a Democratic policy group.
Miller, like many of his colleagues, says Spratt quickly became a go-to source for those seeking policy advice within the Democratic caucus. “Whether it was leadership or Blue Dogs, you could count on him for accurate information,” Miller says. “You could want a different outcome, but the integrity of his counsel was always on the level. His loss is the real deal.”
Spratt holds a master’s degree from the University of Oxford and a law degree from Yale University. Those impressive academic credentials, as well as a varied career as an attorney and a Pentagon analyst, helped position him as one of the chamber’s policy experts. But so, too, did a curious mind, his colleagues say.
Clyburn says his fellow South Carolinian tends to launch into “nerdy” analyses where most Members of Congress would offer glib responses. “Sometimes I would say to him, ‘John, I just need an answer to this question, not a history of the issue,’” he says, laughing.
Spratt is nonchalant about his fluency in wonky issues. “I was able to establish myself as someone who did his homework and is not parochial about things. They were issues of serious importance.”
Spratt sees his work balancing the budget, including starting negotiations that led to the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, as his proudest accomplishment.
Today’s deficits, he warns, are far steeper than those of the 1980s and early ’90s. “They are going to be much more difficult to turn around and reverse … than the Reagan-Bush deficits,” he says. Spratt sits on the fiscal commission, something he sees as his last chance to weigh in from somewhere other than the sidelines on the deficit, which he calls the country’s “biggest domestic issue.”