Nussle Wins Plaudits for Handling of Budget

Once a Leader in House Revolt, Iowan Has ‘Come Into His Own’ in Key Chairmanship

Posted May 6, 2003 at 6:41pm

On the wall behind House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle’s (R-Iowa) desk — next to a print of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” — sits a framed, black and white poster of the fabled “Gang of Seven.”

The dimly lit 1992 photograph features the GOP revolutionaries posing dramatically, attired in ties and white dress shirts and gazing intently at the camera (at the time, Roll Call dubbed the shot “sultry” and “GQ-ish”).

Eleven years after that poster was auctioned at the Republican National Convention, and three weeks after the House finished work on its third Nussle-authored budget, the Iowan prides himself on still carrying the conservative flame.

But despite the fact that Nussle was able to produce a budget that surprised many of his fellow Republicans with its austerity — unusually, it actually provides less money than the White House asked for — the lawmaker still wasn’t completely satisfied with the final product.

“The bottom line is that we didn’t get the savings in the budget that I was trying to lead us toward or the committee was willing to support,” Nussle said in an interview last week.

At the same time, he is extremely proud of what the House was able to accomplish given all of the obstacles, which included wavering House moderates, a chaotic Senate and Members who seemed to want spending increases, tax cuts and a balanced budget all at the same time.

‘I Have No Plans’

The question now for the 42-year-old Nussle is what his political future holds after his term as Budget chairman ends in 2006. If the performance of his fellow Gang of Seven members is any indication, he could still be on the rise.

Rep. John Boehner (Ohio) was GOP Conference chairman and now helms the Education and the Workforce Committee, Rep. John Doolittle (Calif.) is now Conference secretary, Rep. Charlie Taylor (N.C.) is an Appropriations cardinal and ex-Rep. Rick Santorum (Pa.) is currently chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. Only former Reps. Scott Klug (Wis.) and Frank Riggs (Calif.) are currently out of public office.

Nussle has run for leadership before — he lost a 1997 race for GOP Conference vice chairman to Rep. Jennifer Dunn (Wash.) — and he won’t close the door on making another leadership bid. “There may come a time when that is an opportunity, but I have no plans,” he said.

Nussle is proud of his ideological consistency, and he has shown little fear in aggressively standing up for his beliefs. Some Republicans said that same stubborn forcefulness could handicap Nussle if he decides to make another run at leadership.

“I don’t really get the sense of him doing a lot of bridge-building to other Members,” said a top Republican aide who was complimentary of Nussle’s efforts on the budget. “He’s still a guy that’s a little bit tough to get along with, in the sense that he doesn’t necessarily form close relationships.”

Instead of running for leadership, the more frequently discussed scenario in GOP circles has Nussle making a bid for governor in 2006. If the past is any indication, he could run in a tough race without moving to the ideological center; he won re-election easily in 2002 despite running in a redrawn district that leaned toward Democrats.

The lawmaker wouldn’t bite on a potential statehouse bid yet, either.

“I am running for re-election,” Nussle said. “That’s my focus — the next re-election. I haven’t even decided that, technically, but that’s what I’m focused on. I’m not ready to look anywhere else or for anything else right now.”

‘Like Watching a Train Wreck’

Nussle knew from the start that this year’s budget process would be tricky. The fiscal 2004 resolution had to make room for the president’s tax cut, but the chairman also learned from early listening sessions with lawmakers that the House could not pass a budget that projected neverending deficits.

“My frustration this year — I think the frustration everyone had — was that we started off the year with the president proposing a budget that did not balance,” Nussle said. “That was a non-starter.”

Nussle addressed this problem by initially proposing a budget with spending levels far lower than anyone expected for both mandatory and discretionary items.

“He started from the right and moved toward the center, but he started a little further from the right than a lot of people thought he would,” observed a Republican leadership aide.

The aide said that when Nussle first presented his plan to leadership, “the Members loved it and the staff was nervous,” as the aides worried that cuts in entitlement programs would be politically tough to sell.

Ironically, it was the belt-tightening on entitlement programs that helped bring House appropriators around to supporting the bill. While Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) is unhappy with the overall funding level the budget provides for, he and his fellow committee members were impressed with Nussle’s efforts to go after mandatory spending rather than just taking hacks at discretionary items.

But after the bill passed out of the Budget Committee, those spending levels, particularly for Medicaid and veterans’ items, began to look politically unsustainable as GOP moderates threatened to vote against the measure.

“We kind of got to a place on the budget where we didn’t really have a clear path to passage,” said a senior GOP leadership aide.

After a manager’s amendment and some last-minute concessions, the process reached its climax (the first of two, it turned out) with an early-morning vote that Republicans leaders held open an extra 11 minutes in order to round up the last few ayes. The measure passed, 215-212.

While the 2 a.m. vote was full of twists and turns, Nussle said he could just as soon live without the drama.

“I guess I’ve lost the excitement of final passage of the budget, having done this a few times,” he said. “The first time was exciting. After that it can be more like watching a train wreck in slow motion. There are some thrills, but there’s also a lot of danger and sometimes wreckage that gets left behind.”

The real train wreck came just before Congress left for its April recess, when the House passed a budget conference report without knowing that Senate Republican leaders had cut a deal with their moderates to limit the size of the tax cut to $350 billion.

That revelation brought anger from Nussle and House Republican leaders, who lashed out at their Senate counterparts in unusually harsh terms. Even last week, just after Nussle claimed he had “said all [he] had to say” on the subject, he couldn’t resist one more poke.

“The Senate obviously has a lot of work to do on a number of levels,” Nussle said, “and it’s not just interpersonal relationships and working relationships between the House and Senate. I mean, even before they consider that they’ve got a lot of work to do internally figuring out how they’re going to manage, how they’re going to govern if they’re going to be successful.”

‘You Don’t Sell a Blueprint’

Although there are a variety of opinions on the finished product, Nussle earned almost universal praise from Republican colleagues for how he handled the budget process, beginning with the listening sessions he held early on to hear what Members wanted in the resolution.

“This is something I helped start because I felt there wasn’t enough connectivity between the budget process and our Members,” Nussle said. “It was often a document that came from on high with little input into the process.”

On this and a host of other areas, Nussle received favorable reviews compared to his predecessor as Budget chairman, ex-Rep. John Kasich (R-Ohio), whom many Members viewed as aloof and self-centered.

Nussle has instead put a heavy emphasis on communication — with Members, leaders and other committees — though not necessarily compromise.

“It used to be that the Budget Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee never spoke, and the chairmen were ready to go to fisticuffs,” said Nussle. “I think the same was true to some extent between the Appropriations Committee and the Budget Committee. … There’s still tension, and there always will be, but I pride myself on the relationships I’ve built with the chairmen.”

Young, the Appropriations chairman, agreed that there has been “much better communication” with Nussle than there had been with past Budget chairmen. He also praised Nussle for simply getting a budget passed, though he added that there are still some real substantive disagreements between the two panels over funding levels.

Nussle has also recognized the importance of being able to explain and justify the budget to lawmakers who, as he puts it, just “wander into the chamber” at the last minute without having studied the material.

“I think there is a consensus that Nussle has really come into his own in terms of selling his product,” said a senior Republican leadership aide.

Yet Nussle recognizes that there is only so much selling to be done, given that the real action comes as authorizers and appropriators use his framework to actually dole out public funds.

“You don’t sell a blueprint, you sell the finished product,” he said. “It’s the home that you built, not the blueprint. … The blueprint is a mechanism to get there.”