Recently I reached out to Rick May, the Staff Director of the U.S. House Budget Committee from 1993-1997, to ask him about his experience with then Chairman John Kasich as they worked to formulate a balanced budget.
His first-hand accounts are a fantastic read and it’s my pleasure to share with you the results of this interview in a series running the rest of this week.
3BP: John Kasich is widely regarded as the architect of the first balanced budget since man walked on the moon. Can you go into some detail about Chairman Kasich’s responsibilities during this exciting time and how a balanced budget came to be?
Rick May: As John’s former Staff Director I can say without hesitation that the federal budget never would have been brought into balance if it was not for the leadership and daily efforts of John Kasich. Many people point to the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 as the legislation that actually brought the federal budget into balance for the first time since the late 1960s, but people forget that the beginning step in bringing fiscal restraint to the federal budget debate began in 1993 with John Kasich leading the charge that President Clinton’s massive tax increases were unnecessary and Congress needed to “Cut Spending First” to bring the budget deficit under control. John fulfilled this claim by drafting a GOP alternative budget that reduced the deficit as much as the Clinton proposal, but without any tax increases.
John followed-up this “Cut Spending First” effort by playing an instrumental role during the summer of 1994 by ensuring the promise of balancing the federal budget in seven years was a key provision of the Contract with America. Once Republicans gained control of the House in 1995, John, as Chairman of the House Budget Committee, provided the legislative framework and political momentum to follow through on the many other promises contained in the Contract to eliminate wasteful spending and bring fiscal responsibility to how Congress spends taxpayers’ money.
Again, as Chairman of the House Budget Committee, John was given the chief responsibility for drafting a budget proposal in 1995 that balanced the budget by 2002. He led a distinguished and hard-working group of GOP House Budget Committee members in crafting such a proposal. John’s and the House Budget Committee’s hard work in crafting a balanced budget was more than just a mathematical exercise of matching projected expenditures with projected revenues, as John insisted that specific policy recommendations be identified to show where actual budgetary savings could be achieved in nearly every portion of the federal budget. His constant desire to show how the budget could be balanced instilled greater confidence that a balanced budget was possible and that it could be achieved in a responsible manner. Although the Clinton White House vetoed this first balanced budget proposal in the Fall/Winter of 1995, John had clearly established himself as the leading budget expert in the House and he showed that he was the driving force behind making a balanced budget a reality.
In December 1996 – January 1997, the House Republican leadership again turned to John to see if there was any opportunity to reach a balanced budget agreement with the Clinton White House and he, along with Sen. Pete Domenici, set the stage for possible negotiations by restoring a sense of trust between Congress and the White House. Once actual negotiations began in the Spring of 1997 between the Clinton White House and Congress, John was appointed the lead negotiator for the House Republicans and he spent countless hours over many weeks in very small rooms in the U.S. Capitol working with key White House officials hammering out a final budget agreement.
Once the budget agreement was reached in May 1997, John’s efforts to ensure a balanced budget would be achieved did not end as he had to rally both Republican and Democratic Members of Congress to support the agreement and beat back an effort by then House Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster to defeat the budget agreement. John’s tireless efforts and intellectual arguments of why balancing the budget was not only fiscally prudent, but morally correct for future generations, provided the political energy and will power to defeat those who wanted more spending on highway projects at the expense of a historic and bipartisan agreement to finally balance the federal budget.
And finally, one of John’s greatest strengths in making a balanced budget a reality was his unique leadership ability to include the ideas and suggestions of other Members of Congress to generate the team effort necessary to move diverse political forces towards the desired goal. Not only did John invest his own time, energy, and mental capability to move a balanced budget forward, he inspired team effort that helped ensure a majority of Congress believed and supported taking action to balance the federal budget and do something that was in the best interest in the country.
With this in mind, it’s clear that John Kasich played an instrumental (or maybe even a monumental) role in balancing the federal budget during the 1995-1997 period. Remember, in February 1995, the Clinton White House sent the then Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin to the House Budget Committee to testify that balancing the budget was not good for the country — that budget deficits were the preferred budgetary course. Yet, less than three years later, not only had John Kasich showed how it was possible to balance the budget to a skeptical Congress, but he convinced the Clinton White House, who was originally opposed to balancing the budget, that balancing the budget was needed and necessary.