What Would Pete Domenici Think?

Current lack of fiscal discipline would’ve alarmed late Senate Budget chairman

Senate Budget Chairman Pete Domenici, second from right, celebrates a budget deal with the White House on July 29, 1997, along with, from left, Speaker Newt Gingrich, House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer, Senate Finance Chairman William V. Roth Jr. and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Surrounding them on the House steps are tour groups of Boy Scouts and schoolchildren.(Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — One year ago this week, we lost a great statesman and legislator. Pete Domenici’s storied career in public service, most notably as a U.S. senator, spanned more than three decades. He will forever be the longest-serving chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

Equally remarkable, he was a Republican from traditionally blue New Mexico — and its longest-serving senator. That says something about his personal and policy appeal to the public, regardless of party.

While his legislative interests spanned issues from nuclear power to mental health, the senator will also be remembered for his work with the federal budget. In 1997, along with his House counterpart John Kasich and President Bill Clinton, he achieved the extraordinary goal of a balanced federal budget for the first time in over 40 years, and maybe the last time for years to come.

I had the privilege of working with him in the Senate and later when he was a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. The one-year anniversary of his passing, amid the current political turmoil on the Hill, prompted me to wonder: What would Pete think?

First, he would be pleased that the economy is showing signs of growth with low unemployment and low inflation. He would also be pleased that this fall a newly formed joint select committee will seriously consider reforming the congressional budget and appropriation process — including switching to a two-year budget cycle, something he championed for years.

But he would be disappointed that the budget process had fallen into such disrepute. The Senate has not produced a responsible spending and revenue blueprint for the last three years. Never in his years as chairman did the Budget Committee fail to produce a budget.

His biggest concern today would be the country’s fiscal outlook. He would be upset that the Republican Party has lost its moorings and thrown away its claims to fiscal responsibility. When he supported the 2001 Bush tax cuts, it was within the framework of reducing a projected surplus, not to expand a deficit.

He would be discouraged that his friends, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan, have abandoned their early 2017 pronouncements that any tax reform bill enacted would not add to the deficit. But he would also be concerned that some of his Democratic colleagues are using Republicans’ fiscal shortsightedness as an excuse to open the spending coffers further.

In fairness, as an appropriator, he probably would not have objected to increasing the defense and nondefense spending caps earlier this year. However, particularly following the enactment of the tax bill, he would have argued that the increased spending should have been offset by either additional revenues or restraints on the real drivers of federal spending — entitlement programs.

The senator believed mightily in the future of the country he loved. He would decry a budget deficit that has increased 21 percent over the last 10 months. Recent estimates place our total debt growing from an already historically high rate of 78 percent of GDP to potentially 165 percent in 20 years. He would see this burden as simply a tax on future generations, diminishing their dreams and opportunities.

After leaving the Senate, the senator continued to work with his Democratic friend of many years, Alice Rivlin, former CBO director and vice chair of the Federal Reserve. Together, they led BPC’s Debt Reduction Task Force, which issued a significant report, “Restoring America’s Future,” that pointed the way to a more balanced fiscal approach.

His last major work, a study released one year before his passing — “Fixing Fiscal Myopia: Why and How We Should Emphasize the Long Term in Federal Budgeting” — reminds decision-makers to look to the future when making policy decisions today.

Above all else, he was a realist. He understood how difficult it is for politicians to make the necessary hard decisions on taxes and entitlement spending. But he also believed that was their job, often telling colleagues, “We all have to walk the gang plank together if we are going to succeed in restoring fiscal discipline.”

Like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill, only to reach the top before it came tumbling back down over him, Pete Domenici never gave up. And I bet he would be pushing his old colleagues and new friends in Congress today not to abandon fiscal responsibility, as tough as it may be.

G. William Hoagland is senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and the longest-serving staff director of the Senate Budget Committee.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.

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