Fun With Numbers

Posted June 24, 2009 at 3:27pm

Tom Kahn has a job that most people would consider intimidating. As the staff director for the House Budget Committee, Kahn is charged with helping members of the committee divvy up unfathomable amounts of money to keep the government and the country running smoothly.

“It is understandable why some people find the budget challenging to master,— Kahn says. “But that complexity is another reason why I — and our phenomenal Budget Committee staff — find the budget so much fun to work on.—

Every year he sifts through the massive budget proposal that arrives in Congress in February from the president. With requests for cash coming from all corners of the government, Kahn and his staff must field calls from supplicants and write a budget proposal that will pass through Congress and make its way to the president’s desk.

“I constantly remind myself that the budget is more than just numbers on a page,— he says.

Kahn says he looks at the budget as a document that will help people. In it, he and his staff find ways to assure that the elderly will get their Social Security checks, that children will get health care through the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and that students will receive their college loans.

Even so, there is no way around the fact that writing a budget proposal is one of the longest, most complex tasks on Capitol Hill. Once the proposed budget arrives from the White House and the committee has combed through it, a markup takes place. The markup is an all-day affair and often forces Kahn to spend the night before at his desk.

“It’s a more efficient use of time,— he says, adding, “Having kids makes it easier because you’re already used to not sleeping.—

Kahn, who served as minority staff director on the committee from 1997 to 2006, says the markup is a much more pleasant experience now that he is in the majority. Typically, the amendments offered by the minority Members fail, whereas the majority has a lot more freedom to make changes.

“That’s the way it was when we were in the minority, and that’s the way it is now,— he says.

Meanwhile, the Senate is going through a similar process. After the markup, Kahn has a hand in getting both chambers’ budget proposals to align before sending the finished product to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

“It can often be a very challenging process to get to that middle ground,— he sighs.

Of course, Kahn doesn’t do all this on his own. His job as staff director has him working very closely with Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) and a staff of more than 20 people.

“Chairman Spratt is leading the effort as always,— Kahn says of this year’s budget proposal. “He gives us our marching orders.—

Kahn has been working with Spratt for 22 years. He began in the Congressman’s personal office as a legislative counsel before moving to the committee with him. Over the years, the two have developed a personal relationship in addition to a working relationship. Kahn says he couldn’t do the job if he didn’t like and respect Spratt as much as he does.

“He’s just a wonderful man,— he says. “He came to my wedding, he knows my kids. I still learn something from him every day.—

As for the staffers, Kahn says they are just as important. When hiring employees, Kahn says he looks for people who understand the budget, are flexible when it comes to working long hours and can “roll with the punches.— He adds that his staff rarely has a chance to plan further than an hour in advance. Despite the long hours and complex work, Kahn says the staff has a relatively low turnover rate.

“We could never do our job without them,— he says. “It’s long hours, it’s a tough job, but they do it.—

While Kahn’s job is demanding, the father of two still manages to find time to spend with his family. He says his two young sons, Benjamin and Daniel, are the pride and joy of his life. In fact, he says his perspective on his work has changed significantly since they came into his life.

“They give me this sense of joy that I never knew was possible and also a sense of purpose about what we’re doing here,— he says. “Our country faces really huge challenges particularly on the budget, and I really want Ben and Daniel to have a world as good as the one that I inherited and hopefully better. It really gives you perspective.—