Former Sen. Mike Enzi, mild-mannered Budget chairman, dies

Bipartisan dealmaker and veteran of budget battles retired in January

Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., at a hearing in 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., at a hearing in 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 27, 2021 at 8:50am

Former Sen. Michael B. Enzi, a onetime Wyoming shoe store owner who became chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, died Monday from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident. He was 77.

Before retiring from the Senate in January, the Wyoming Republican, former accountant and father of three had sought to overhaul the budget process and better manage the nation’s debt.

“That’s the legacy I want to leave my grandkids — a sustainable America,” Enzi said in 2019.

“He is the classic example of the Senate workhorse, not the Senate show horse,” said Eric Ueland, who first got to know Enzi when the newly elected senator served as deputy whip for Senate Republicans in 1997. Ueland later worked as GOP staff director of the Budget Committee under Enzi before leaving to work for the Trump administration in various roles, including as White House legislative affairs director.

Ueland and other former staff members said they were grateful to work for Enzi and know him.

“He was such a great boss and an even better human being,” one former staff member said after Enzi’s accident, which occurred on Friday.

Enzi cut an unusual figure as he strode to and from the Senate floor, often with his eyes cast downward, seemingly glued to a tablet.

He was a voracious reader. Once at a hearing on strategies for spurring private sector economic growth, he asked witnesses for any reading material they considered useful.

“I read about 100 books a year and do a book report on each of them,” Enzi told the group. “It saves me from having to go back and reread them again, unless I want to review what I read before. And I find it very helpful.”

A mild-mannered dealmaker

While his approach to policy was not unlike that of other Republican conservatives from the Rocky Mountain states, Enzi prided himself on being able to work productively with Democrats.

He sometimes trumpeted what he called the “80-20 rule,” which he said enabled him and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., to pass multiple pieces of legislation while they alternated the chairmanship and ranking member positions on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee between 2005 and Kennedy’s death in 2009.

Describing the rule during his farewell address last year, Enzi said they would figure out what they could agree on — which made up about 80 percent of what they both wanted — and leave aside the 20 percent on which they disagreed.

“If we couldn’t find a new way to do the part that had been argued for years, we simply left it out, believing that 80 percent finished is better than 20 percent that only makes the press,” Enzi said.

Enzi and Kennedy worked together to pass myriad laws including a reauthorization of the Ryan White AIDS funding program, legislation to improve safety for miners and reauthorization of a law that supports vocational education.

When he took the helm of the Budget Committee in the 114th Congress, Enzi employed a similar approach to seek bipartisan agreement on budget process changes.

He achieved a small measure of success in April 2017 when the committee approved several rules changes aimed at making the budget process more transparent. Those changes required only committee approval.

As chairman, he pushed for a two-year budget process, rather than an annual one, saying it would lead to better fiscal planning and provide more time to scrutinize federal spending. The effort never bore fruit, but Enzi used his Budget Committee gavel to stress the need for fiscal responsibility at almost every opportunity.

“Lots of us find it concerning that there are no immediate repercussions to Congress’ inability to keep our fiscal house in order,” he said at a 2019 hearing. “Congress time and again does not meet its deadlines to pass spending bills. … When budget agreements are made, they’re ignored within weeks with barely the bat of an eye.”

Recent budget battles

Enzi shepherded through a fiscal 2016 budget resolution that was the first one adopted since a Democratic-led Congress pushed through a budget in 2009.

His budget blueprint contained reconciliation instructions that led to the writing of GOP legislation to repeal the Obama administration’s 2010 health care law. After a Republican-led Congress passed the repeal measure, then-President Barack Obama vetoed it.

In the 115th Congress, it was left to Enzi to craft an unusual, bare-bones budget resolution to serve as a vehicle for repealing the health care law after House Republicans were unable to muster enough support to pass their budget.

When efforts to repeal the health law collapsed, Enzi set his sights on a budget resolution paving the way for Republicans to tackle their next big priority: tax overhaul. The budget resolution adopted in 2017 cleared the way for passing a sweeping tax overhaul that year without needing votes from Democrats.

Ueland said Enzi “had the patience, perseverance and positivity to lead his Republican colleagues on the committee and in the Senate, work with the Democrats, negotiate with the House, and lead in both moving the Republican agenda forward during the Trump presidency and creating a strong bipartisan consensus behind an improved budget process and a better way of handling budget resolutions in the committee.”

Son of a shoe salesman

Enzi was born in 1944 in Bremerton, Wash., where his father had worked in the naval shipyards during World War II. The family moved to Wyoming soon after his birth. After graduating from high school in Sheridan, Wyo., and college at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., he returned west to the University of Denver, where he received a master’s degree in retail marketing in 1968.

The following year, he married and moved to Wyoming with his wife, Diana. They settled in Gillette, a boomtown in the middle of the state’s coal and oil industries, where they expanded his father’s small business, NZ Shoes. They later added stores in Sheridan and Miles City, Mont.

Enzi said his experience selling shoes proved valuable in the Senate. It was, he said, “some of my best background — you have to know that there’s a customer, you have to listen to the customer, and you have to see how what the customer wants matches up with the inventory. And around here, the inventory is legislation.”

Enzi began his political career by winning the 1974 mayoral election in Gillette when he was 30. In 1986, he won a seat in the state House, and by 1991 he was in the state Senate. When Republican Sen. Alan Simpson decided to retire after 18 years, Enzi sought the seat. He narrowly won the 1996 primary over John Barrasso — who is now the Senate’s No. 3 Republican — by building a network of supporters drawn in part from the Wyoming Christian Coalition. He took the general election by 12 points over Democrat Kathy Karpan, a former two-term Wyoming secretary of state.

Enzi faced a potentially ugly primary challenge in 2013 from Liz Cheney, who now represents the state in the House. But Enzi was not as easy to knock off as Cheney may have imagined. His reelection was ensured when Cheney dropped out in January 2014, citing a family member’s health issues.

Cheney said in a statement Tuesday that Enzi had been a mentor during the four years they served together in Congress, calling him a “straight-shooter, an honest broker and a soft-spoken but powerful advocate” for fiscal discipline and Wyoming’s energy industry.

“Any event that included Mike would be better because of his intellect, his dedication, determination and wonderful dry sense of humor,” Cheney said. He was also a lover of the outdoors and a “firm believer that a fly rod and a day on the river could fix just about anything,” she said.