Packing Up the Past
After 28 Years in Office, Longtime South Carolina Rep. John Spratt Is Saying Goodbye to Life in Congress
Rep. John Spratt is comfortable analyzing a nuclear disarmament treaty or dissecting a budget, but he finds packing a cardboard box difficult.
On a November morning, the 68-year-old South Carolinian surveyed his half-empty office, where bare shelves had been stripped of mementos accumulated over a 28-year Congressional tenure.
An archivist has recently visited Spratt’s office, packing up official papers, which researchers will later sort and catalog.
“Thank God for the University of South Carolina archives,” he says. “I don’t know if I have the stomach to do that.”
Spratt, who was swept out of office in the midterm elections, is saying goodbye to a Congressional career and to the colleagues he loves. And he’s finding that what he’s amassed over the decades isn’t easily tucked away into boxes.
Spratt professes, in his soft South Carolina drawl, that he’s at peace with his ouster, even a little relieved to have the bruising campaign behind him.
“I have grandchildren that I can spend more time with, I have projects I’d like to pursue and personal matters that have gone unattended for a long time,” he says. “All in all, it works out well for me.”
Spratt’s defeat to first-term state Senator Mick Mulvaney was one of the most bitter losses for Democrats.
Its plotline would warm the heart of any GOP political operative: Stoked by a national wave, upstart Republican topples longtime Democratic incumbent, despite the incumbent’s personal popularity and centrist leanings.
Some analysts pin Spratt’s loss on an unaggressive campaign that didn’t take Mulvaney’s challenge seriously until too late. Spratt in part credits an influx of third-party spending on ads slamming him as a Washington insider, beholden to party leaders.
Majority Whip James Clyburn, whose district adjoins Spratt’s, cites his genteel friend’s reluctance to go negative — either against his opponent or against polarizing national Democratic figures such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi or President Barack Obama.
No matter the cause, Spratt says he has stopped dwelling on his loss. “I have obviously replayed the game,” he says. “I used to play high school football, and Saturday mornings we would get together and play the game all over again, and I’ve done that in my mind. But I also know that it’s water over the dam, it can’t be recalled.”
The Workhorse Within
And while Spratt is circumspect, the workhorse within him isn’t quite at peace. His seemingly insatiable appetite for legislative detail and the way he relishes probing witnesses during committee hearings mark him as a legislator who loved the muckier parts of the job.
“I still have things I want to do … an agenda I really would like to have the opportunity to push through,” he says, conceding that doing so would have been difficult under a hardened GOP majority. Spratt plans to spend more time with family back home in York, S.C., once the Congressional session is over, but he doesn’t plan to get out of the policy game altogether. He hopes to land at a think tank, maybe organize some of his favorite speeches and opinion pieces into a memoir of sorts for his family.
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.”
But in his box-strewn office, today’s challenge is simpler. Spratt and his staff have mere days to vacate their quarters in the Longworth House Office Building. Soon, the photos of some other Member of Congress will line these walls. Plaques and handwritten notes bearing some other lawmaker’s name will rest on the shelves.
“The camaraderie,” Spratt answers without hesitation, when asked what he will miss most about Congress. When he first arrived in Washington, he wasn’t sure what he’d find, or whether he would fit in among a group of politicians he suspected were “a group of glad-handers and back-slappers.”
Spratt was pleased to have been proved wrong.
“They are gregarious — they have to be; that’s how they get elected,” he said of the colleagues he came to admire. “But they are also some of the most interesting people I’ve ever known.”
And for all his budgetary prowess, Spratt somehow can’t seem to make the institution of Congress add up.
“After serving here for some time, I came to the conclusion that this place,” he says, “might be less than the sum of its parts.”