Politics & Policy

Portman Agonistes

Senator Rob Portman (R., Ohio)
At OMB, he fought to curb spending, and made progress.

Senator Rob Portman of Ohio is a top vice-presidential contender and it’s easy to see why. He is close with Mitt Romney, he is a prolific fundraiser, and he has advised every Republican presidential nominee since Reagan. But inside the Beltway, where veep speculation is rampant, talk of Portman’s short-list status inevitably includes a caveat. His tenure in President George W. Bush’s administration, where he held two senior posts from 2005 to 2007, is widely considered a political liability.

Portman, naturally, dismisses the conventional wisdom. In an interview, he acknowledges that Bush remains unpopular in certain circles, but he is “very proud” of his time with the 43rd president, especially his involvement with Bush’s efforts to balance the federal budget and broker free-trade agreements. “It was full of successes,” he says. “We made some real progress on fiscal discipline and on accountability for taxpayers.” Portman also played a key role in urging Bush to issue the first spending veto of his presidency.

Early in his second term, Bush tapped Portman, then a rising congressman, to serve as United States Trade Representative. As a former trade lawyer, Portman relished the job, from the World Trade Organization talks in Doha to his work on Capitol Hill to pass landmark pacts, such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement. A year later, Bush promoted Portman to the cabinet, where the Cincinnati Republican served as director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Portman’s yearlong OMB stint, in particular, has resurfaced this week, thanks to a 300-page packet of opposition research, all of it Portman-related, that was dumped into reporters’ inboxes by American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC. The briefing book slams Portman for “claiming” to be a fiscal hawk, citing the increase in federal spending during the Bush years. The document is part of a series the group is publishing — “Veep Mistakes” — on Romney’s potential running mates.

Portman understands the clamor for partisan fodder, but he will push back, he says, as Democrats distort his Bush experience. Yes, he was the president’s confidant, and he was intimately involved in crafting the administration’s fiscal agenda, but that doesn’t mean he was a compliant cog in a deficit machine. “I was able to propose a balanced budget over five years and, frankly, that was a fight inside the White House,” he tells me. “Some people didn’t think that was worth the political risk.”

In background conversations, longtime Portman allies remember the senator quietly shifting Bush’s team to the right on fiscal issues, even when many on Pennsylvania Avenue were averse to making spending cuts and entitlement reform a priority. One former GOP lawmaker says Portman’s sway came from his relationships with Bush’s senior advisers. “On the budget, he could really prod Karl Rove and other aides, because they trusted him,” the lawmaker says. “He wasn’t looking to be the star.”

A U.S. News & World Report article from January 2007, a month before Portman officially unveiled his first budget, credits the Ohioan for winning the internal debate in the Oval Office between Bush aides who wanted more tax cuts included in the budget and Bush advisers who wanted a balanced budget to be the thrust of the proposal. “Portman really wanted this,” one insider told the publication. Concerns about future entitlement costs, Portman recalls, motivated him to speak up.

“There were Bush officials who did not want to include ugly cuts in the budget,” says Barry Bennett, a former Portman adviser. “Rob insisted on offering a balanced budget, which went against the political wisdom at the time, when spending was exploding but the deficit was relatively stable.” In his memoir, Decision Points, President Bush underscores the latter point, arguing that his administration’s “fiscal record was strong,” owing to the decreased debt-to-GDP ratio during parts of his second term.

For politicos, Bush’s rose-colored view of the debt versus the Democrats’ spotlight on the GOP’s spending binge is the central tension of Portman’s vice-presidential candidacy. Does Portman deserve credit for keeping the debt to an arguably reasonable level? Or, as a shepherd of both a balanced budget and spending increases, was he  part of the regrettable fiscal irresponsibility that plagued the twilight of Bush’s presidency?

The answer, of course, is complicated. In broad terms, Portman was clearly a fiscal conservative in his politics, but he was working for a president who was focused chiefly on national security, not deficit reduction. And he was at OMB for only a year, taking the reins from Josh Bolten, who transferred to the West Wing. So while he may have had an impact, he didn’t dictate the policy thrust of the administration.

In fact, Portman initially declined the position when Bolten called. “I just said, ‘Look, I’m happy where I am, thank you very much.’ And they came back and said that no, this is actually something the president wants you to do,” Portman chuckles. “It’s sort of like when the CEO tells you, when you’re the vice president for marketing, that you’re going to go over and work on the operations side. Well, that’s what you do.”

As one prominent Republican puts it, “Portman was always a force inside the White House, but when he was with Bush, he didn’t rock the boat. He wasn’t picked to shake things up.” Indeed, for Portman, being Bush’s budget director meant he became closer to the president, but in the scope of the administration’s eight-year fiscal record, he was, in many respects, an intermediate player. As the third of Bush’s four budget directors, he wrote one budget, huddled with congressional leaders, and then decided to head home to his family.

“Once the Democrats in Congress started to do continuing resolutions instead of appropriation bills, it was a less interesting job,” Portman says of his departure.

The fiscal data reflect the political narrative. When Portman moved to the budget office in late spring 2006, the deficit was approximately $248 billion. Later, during fiscal year 2007, the deficit decreased to $161 billion. During fiscal year 2008, shortly after Portman left in June 2007, the deficit — under a Democratic Senate, a Democratic House, and a Republican president — ballooned to $459 billion. But Portman’s power and presence had already faded, and he wasn’t blamed for the spending.

As one might expect, Portman and his friends stress fiscal year 2007, the year the deficit dropped, as the keystone of his record. “That’s the relevant year,” Portman says. “The deficit was $161 billion, which is about one sixth of today’s deficit, or even one seventh, depending on where we come out at the end of the year. It was a time where once we got the appropriations bill from coming in over the levels, and with growth, we were able to see some real progress against the deficit.”

Bush avoided vetoing appropriations bills from 2001 to 2006, Portman says, because of an agreement between the president and congressional Republican leaders on spending levels. If GOP leaders kept their spending within agreed parameters, Bush pledged to not use his pen to nix their bills. Once Democrats took over, those handshake agreements died, and Bush had to reevaluate congressional relations. Portman says he urged Bush to veto some new-spending bills.

Bush took Portman’s advice in early May 2007 when he vetoed an appropriations bill for the first time since taking office. “I thought the supplemental bill was too expensive; it was above the spending limits we had talked about,” Portman says. “I was happy to recommend that the president issue a veto, which he did, and it was not overridden. That changed the whole dynamic. At that point, appropriations bills stopped coming up over the level that the president had stipulated in his budget.”

Portman also touts the promotion of transparency as a central part of his mission. It may not get that much attention, he says, especially in comparison with the deficit and defense spending, but it was important. As a former congressman familiar with earmark culture, Portman curbed the free-spending ways of his Republican colleagues by putting the unseemly details of congressional pork projects into an online database.

“It wasn’t an easy job,” Portman says. “In fact, OMB is almost an impossible job, because your oversight responsibilities are for the entire government and you’re asked, in our case, to put together a $3 trillion budget, which is tough to do. But it was a great learning experience.” 

Portman’s message is clear: If he’s the veep, he’s not going to run away from his budget record; he will embrace it. It may be an imperfect story, but it’s an assertive, if cautionary, fiscal tale.

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

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