Sen. Kent Conrad (D., N.D.) has long styled himself as a deficit hawk. “I’m a financial person. I’ve always been concerned about deficits and debt,” he told the Associated Press in an interview earlier this year. And for the most part, he has sought to steer clear of the petty partisanship surrounding the debate. Until recently, that is.
When Conrad announced earlier this year his decision not to seek another term in 2012, he expressed hope that — freed of the time and political constraints of a reelection campaign — he would be able to play a leading role in the effort to confront what he called “the central threat facing the country, other than a terrorist threat” — the debt. As a member of the Bowles-Simpson commission on deficit reduction as well as the ongoing “Gang of Six” bipartisan negotiations in the Senate, Conrad appeared to be doing just that.
In fact, many Republicans view Conrad as perhaps the most sensible and serious Democrat when it comes to deficit reduction, someone who, in the words of one GOP aide, “has already jumped ship” by abandoning the Democratic consensus for the good of the country (a depressingly rare quality in Washington). The normally soft-spoken Conrad emerged as his party’s most vocal agitator for urgent action to address the debt problem and, unlike many of his Democratic colleagues, rejects the fantasy that tax increases alone will do the trick — entitlements must be on the table.
But the Kent Conrad that fiscal conservatives have come to quietly admire (and liberals vocally despise) has been missing in action of late. In reaction to House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget proposal — praised as a “serious, honest, straightforward approach to addressing our nation’s enormous fiscal challenges” by the co-chairs of the Bowles-Simpson commission — the ostensibly iconoclastic Conrad issued a statement of pure partisan boilerplate. “Representative Ryan’s proposal is partisan and ideological,” Conrad said. “He provides dramatic tax cuts for the wealthiest, financed by draconian reductions in Medicare and Medicaid. His proposals are unreasonable and unsustainable.” Rarely has Conrad been so firmly in agreement with the likes of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. An incredulous Roger Hickey, co-director of the hyper-liberal Campaign for America’s future, exclaimed on Huffington Post: “Yes, Kent Conrad! . . . I never thought I’d have the opportunity to thank Kent Conrad for helping to unify his fellow Democrats against Republican excess.”
As chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Conrad is responsible for drafting the Senate’s rebuttal to Ryan’s plan, which was adopted by the House on April 15. The Budget Act of 1974 stipulates that each chamber of Congress must submit a budget resolution by April 1, and pass that resolution, with amendments if necessary, no later than the 15th. In true Democratic form, Conrad has yet to produce anything, and there is very little indication that he plans to do so anytime soon.
When reporters have asked Conrad about his plans to release a budget, he has consistently dodged the question by pointing to the “Gang of Six” talks, which seem to be perpetually on the verge of a significant breakthrough. A Conrad spokesman tells National Review Online: “[Chairman Conrad] has been wanting to give the Group of Six a chance to reach agreement so that he can possibly use that as a framework for his resolution.”
Congressional Democrats were widely panned last year when they failed to produce a budget for the first time since the Budget Act became law. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, worries that it could happen again. “It’s past time for the Budget Committee to do its job and produce a budget,” he tells NRO.
Sessions fears that Conrad’s continued deferral to the Gang of Six — which conducts all of its negotiations behind closed doors — is a bald-faced copout. “We have institutions in the Senate set up to deal with these things publicly,” he says. “I’m getting uneasy about these secret, self-appointed groups who are going to meet and apparently solve our problems and everybody in the House and the Senate is just going to fall down and accept it.”
For someone who claims to be so concerned about the deficit, Conrad has been conspicuously absent from the public debate in recent weeks (notwithstanding his ridicule of Ryan’s plan). Another Gang of Six member, Sen. Mark Warner (D., Va.), seems to have emerged as the new face of Democratic seriousness regarding the debt and deficit, though Warner too has been highly derisive of the Republican budget, describing it as “taking basically a meat ax to those programs that protect the most vulnerable in our country.”
It remains to be seen whether Conrad’s truancy, and the uptick in partisan rhetoric — perhaps best embodied by President Obama’s speech at George Washington University last week, in which he basically told Paul Ryan to his face that his budget was a fundamentally un-American document — is a sign that the two sides are hopelessly divided or is merely a final posturing in the run-up to fruitful negotiations.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), a GOP member of the Gang of Six along with Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.) and Mike Crapo (R., Idaho), remains optimistic. “Two years from now, will we look back and say did we make the hard choices, regardless of what Kent Conrad said at one moment on a budget plan by Paul Ryan?” he asked radio host Hugh Hewitt in an interview. But Coburn warned that an agreement is “not a sure thing” and said he stands ready to introduce his own proposal in the event that talks break down. “Send me some senators who have some gonads” — i.e., who aren’t afraid to lose their jobs — he added.
For Conrad, that’s one thing he no longer has worry about. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for a certain member of his party, who has just launched what is likely to be a $1 billion reelection campaign. As someone who has always maintained that White House involvement would be essential to any bipartisan agreement on deficit reduction, Conrad ought to have severe misgivings at this point as to the level of “involvement” that the president’s campaign advisers are willing to subject him to, beyond the occasional smug lecture.
Given the circumstances, perhaps Senator Conrad should revisit his own words from a speech he gave at a “Moment of Truth” press conference to announce the re-launching of the Bowles-Simpson deficit plan: “History is going to judge whether we have the courage, character, and the vision to stand up for America’s future. Those who take a walk, those who turn away, those who don’t have the gumption to stand up, are going to be judged very, very harshly.”
— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow with National Review Online.