Washington — Jim Nussle took a little time off from his campaign last week to handle a small chore in Washington: Writing a budget for the U.S. government.
The Republican candidate for governor of Iowa is also the chairman of the House Budget Committee. In keeping with the custom of the House Republican leadership, his schedule gives ample time for handshaking with constituents and fundraising, while minimizing the hours he has to spend legislating. That is why the House is on pace to meet even less this year than it did in 1948, the year that Harry Truman labeled the famous 80th Congress as the "do-nothing Congress."
Just back from a 10-day break for St. Patrick's Day, Nussle convened his committee at 10:45 Wednesday morning - and by nightfall had put the finishing touches on the $2.8 trillion budget for next year.
A likable lawyer who came to Congress as a 30-year-old, Nussle presided with the nonchalance of a man who knows he is leaving his job after almost 16 years - and a chairman with the votes in his pocket to pass his bill.
Those who expected to hear serious debate about the nation's spending priorities went home disappointed. In a performance as tightly choreographed as "Swan Lake," Nussle called on individual Republican members in turn to give two-minute speeches about the soaring economy and the progress they said had been made on all fronts in the Bush years. Then, he graciously yielded equal time to the Democrats for a similarly unspontaneous set of orations trashing the same Bush economic record.
All this was done in good humor, with everyone understanding that the outcome had been sealed in advance.
The key Democratic amendment was disposed of in less than 20 minutes, with nary a show of emotion on either side. The handful of reporters in attendance dozed through a lethargic debate between Democrat Dennis Moore of Kansas and Republican Patrick McHenry of North Carolina.
Moore and other Democrats were trying to reimpose the budget rule known as "pay-go." That requirement simply says any spending increase or tax cut be offset by a comparable saving in order to avoid increasing the deficit, unless a supermajority of 60 percent of the lawmakers voted to make an exception.
The rule was in effect from 1991 to 2002, and contributed directly to whittling away the deficits and moving the budget into surplus. But when Bush became president, Congress discarded the rule - an action which Alan Greenspan and many other fiscal conservatives deplored.
In the Senate on March 14, Democrats tried to revive the rule, and failed on a 50-50 tie vote. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the Republican chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, led the effort to defeat it, arguing that it would inevitably force a tax increase. Gregg was not the least embarrassed when Sen. Kent Conrad, the North Dakota Democrat who offered the amendment to bring back "pay-go," quoted Gregg's own words from a 2002 debate.
Four years ago, Gregg said: "If we do not do this, if we do not put back in place caps and pay-go mechanisms, we will have no budget discipline in this Congress, and, as a result, we will dramatically aggravate the deficit which, of course, impacts a lot of important issues, but especially impacts Social Security."
When Conrad quoted those words, Gregg replied: "I was right then, and I am right now. Times change and the dynamics of what is happening around here change substantively."
That argument was replayed in the House Budget Committee, with Republicans unanimously opposing the reimposition of the pay-go rule, while Democrats supported it. The roll call on the amendment was 15 yes, 21 no - unmentioned in the news accounts reporting the 22-17 vote that sent the whole bill forward.
Back in 1991, in his first year in Congress, Nussle was a budget hawk, even proposing that lawmakers' salaries be cut 5 percent every year they tolerated a deficit of any size.
This year, in his final year as Budget Committee chairman, he sent the House a fiscal plan that - by his staff's optimistic forecast - would add $3 trillion to the national debt in the next five years and boost the annual interest payments by 35 percent during that period.
Jim Nussle and Judd Gregg are not alone. The budget policies that conservatives and Republicans are swallowing these days are policies you would think would cause them to gag.
No wonder they'd rather be home campaigning.
¢ Lyn Nofziger, Ronald Reagan's loyal aide and spokesman who died last week, was a friend from the days when we were seatmates and fellow exiles on the Kennedy campaign in 1960, both of us working for Republican papers. He was a man of strong convictions and unfailing good spirits whose only fault was a weakness for terrible puns. The world will be duller without him.