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.
If you missed the first part, click this.
And now, part 2.
3BP: Kasich is often described as the “architect” of the Balanced Budget agreement. How “hands on” was Kasich during the development of the budget?
Rick May: John was extremely hands-on during the formulation of the 1997 Balanced Budget Agreement, including the period of time before actual negations with the Clinton White House began. For example, he handled all of the direct discussions with the White House Legislative Affairs Director John Hilley during December 1996 and January 1997 as those discussions set the stage for more direct budget negotiations in February-May 1997. Those early discussions with the Clinton White House cannot be underestimated as the their was so much “bad-blood'”between the Republican Congress and the White House relating to the government shutdown in December 1995-January 1996 and many other issues, that there was basically no trust between Congress and the White House and there was no way that any budget negotiations could take place in 1997 if it had not been those preliminary discussions between John Kasich and John Hilley.
Once negotiations did begin in late January-February, I believe that was the correct time frame, John was the House Republican chief negotiator and he spent hours, along with Sen. Pete Domenici, with both congressional Democrats (Rep. John Spratt and Sen. Frank Lautenberg) and White House officials in going painstakingly through every major negotiating point that had to be addressed.
But it was much more than just sitting in a room with other politicians and policy wonks. John was the eyes and ears of the House Republican leadership and he played a key role in determining what negotiating strategy the House Leadership was going to take with the White House. He also had to make judgments on what programs reforms/reductions made the most sense from a policy point of view and what his fellow House Republican members could support if a budget agreement was actually reached. The hours, days, and weeks that he spent in understanding how numerous federal programs worked and how budgetary savings could be achieved was a massive task. John took it as a personal responsibility to see if a budget deal was doable and then he worked constantly to see if the details made sense and whether it was actually a true balanced budget.
This last point — reaching a true balanced budget — was an essential component to the entire process. John and the other House Republicans were not going to “create” a balanced budget with accounting tricks or budget gimmicks and he took this goal very seriously. As you may recall, one of the major reasons there were such major budget impasses in late 1995 and early 1996 was because the Clinton White House wanted to “balance” the budget using overly optimistic budget and economic assumptions used by the Administration’s Office of Management and Budget — using more optimistic budget assumptions meant that fewer budget cuts were “needed’ to balance the budget — while the Republican-controlled Congress wanted to use more reasonable and conservative budget and economic assumptions prepared by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). By using the CBO’s numbers, it ensured that there was a greater chance the budget would ultimately be balanced and the effort would not be another Washington gimmick of claiming the budget was balanced when the chances of success were small. The more conservative the basic foundation of the budget, the more likelihood Congress would make the essential decisions needed to bring the budget into balance. John felt very strongly about this point and he ensured that no gimmicks or tricks were included in the final budget agreement.