Possible VP pick Rob Portman was ‘frustrated’ at Bush budget office

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who served as former President George W. Bush’s budget director, sought this week to distance himself from his former boss by saying he was “frustrated” in the high-profile post.

Pressed on his record with Bush, Portman — a leading GOP vice presidential contender — agreed to an exclusive interview with The Hill in his Senate office.

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Portman was careful to not criticize Bush while detailing the challenges he faced from other administration officials, whom he declined to name. The comments indicate that Portman is seeking to keep Bush at arm’s length while also not appearing to be disloyal.

Portman did note, for example, that he was ultimately satisfied with the administration’s second-term efforts to rein in spending.

The freshman senator is in a tough spot. He, like other Republicans, is jockeying to be Mitt Romney’s running mate. While Portman has many attributes, he knows that his work for the Bush administration could be a handicap.

Portman was close with Bush when he served in the House. The 56-year-old legislator later served as Bush’s U.S. Trade Representative before heading the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Bush remains unpopular with independent voters. Conservatives, meanwhile, have long bemoaned the his spending habits.

Creating daylight between him and the Bush administration could be important for Portman if he is picked as the vice presidential nominee because Democrats would surely try to tie Romney to Bush.

Portman, who served as director of the OMB from May 2006 to August 2007, recalled his behind-the-scenes battles with other senior advisers.

“I was frustrated when I was there about some spending issues — specifically, as you know, I wanted to offer a balanced budget over five years, and a lot of people didn’t,” he said in the interview, noting the decision to submit a balanced budget was ultimately the president’s. “I prevailed. The president sent his budget — not my budget, his budget — a five-year balanced budget. But it was a fight, internally.” 

During Portman’s tenure, Bush submitted his first plan to balance the budget. The blueprint he submitted to Congress in 2007 would have eliminated the deficit by 2012. Democrats, who controlled the House and Senate in 2007 and 2008, didn’t act on Bush’s proposal.

Portman says he won another debate within the administration and with lawmakers on Capitol Hill over posting earmarks on the Internet, a change he thought was needed to create more transparency for federal spending. 

“We also took some heat on putting all earmarks online, both internally at the White House and up here. We won that fight. So I felt I was making progress,” he said. 

Former Bush administration officials say Portman was the leading advocate for fiscal discipline within the administration, at a time before budget-cutting became fashionable again within GOP circles.

“Rob was, I argue, the leading proponent of balancing the budget and fiscal restraint during the time I was there,” said Edward Lazear, chairman of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2006 to 2009. 

Guarding against deficit spending was not a high priority during the early years of the Bush administration. Former Vice President Cheney reportedly told former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, in a famous exchange in 2002, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.”

Bush inherited a surplus of $128 billion in 2001 but soon presided over a plunge back into red ink as the deficit climbed to $413 billion by 2004. Budget experts note that some of that reversal was attributable to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Still, the ex-president outraged many conservatives by pushing for a $400 billion Medicare prescription drug benefit that was not paid for. 

GOP strategists think Romney will have to run against Bush’s spending record, which means Portman would have to do the same if he is tapped for the ticket. 

“Romney has to run a little bit against Bush as well as against [President] Obama,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. “He needs to say, without being insulting, that the Bush years were ones of too much spending.”

Norquist said cutting spending was not a high priority for the Bush administration. 

“There was no Horatio at the bridge watching for it,” he said, making reference to the legend of the Roman officer who held back an army of invaders despite daunting odds. “I was never in a meeting where ‘Spend less, don’t spend too much’ was the central part of the conversation.”

Norquist said Portman needs to differentiate himself from the Bush administration’s lax attitude on spending.

“It is my understanding that Portman quit because of the spending,” he said. “If they’re willing to tell that story, that makes Portman more viable.” 

Portman said he left OMB after just over a year as its director because he wanted to spend more time with his family and because he was doubtful about enacting more spending reforms after Democrats decided to pass stopgap spending measures instead of appropriations bills. 

“The balanced budget was a priority of mine; putting all earmarks online was a priority of mine. We had achieved those things,” he said. “Then the tradeoff was family versus the other important work of OMB, but there was not going to be any negotiation on reforming government with the [Democratic-led] Congress, because they were in a totally different mode at that point.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said Romney needs to pledge to voters that his administration would hold a stronger line against deficit spending. 

“The Democrats hammered Bush for spending too much in the last two years, and many Republicans acquiesced that Bush did spend too much. There’s truth to that,” he said. 

Joel Kaplan, who served as Bush’s deputy chief of staff for policy while Portman served as head of the OMB, said Portman had to battle other senior advisers on the budget and earmarks. 

“Rob was a forceful and persistent advocate for fiscal restraint and submitting a president’s budget that would show balance in five years and he prevailed on it,” said Kaplan. “There definitely were disagreements and debates about what level of commitments we could make and was responsible. There were different perspectives, but Rob had a very clear view.”

Kaplan said some administration officials defended Congress’s resistance to putting earmarks online. 

“He was a big advocate of being transparent about earmarks, and at that time that was not an entirely popular position to take on the Hill,” Kaplan said. “You had people in the administration who would naturally reflect the concerns they heard from allies on the Hill.”

One source who requested anonymity said Portman’s strong advocacy for fiscal discipline sometimes led to him squaring off against Karl Rove, Bush’s powerful political strategist. 

J.D. Foster, the chief economist at the OMB at the time, said Portman had to contend with Bush’s political advisers, but argued they were not outright opposed to budget cutting. 

“What there was was a weighing of the options; that’s what the political team does: What is the political pushback, and what is the political gain?” he said. 

Foster noted that Bush had already won reelection and many of the ramifications of balancing the budget would have occurred after he left office. 

“It was not, ‘How do we position the president for reelection?’ It was, ‘What is the best thing for the country or the party?’ ” he said. 

Foster added, “When you’re the director of OMB, you’re always subject to frustration. It’s a very demanding job. You are trying to spend money wisely, and government doesn’t like doing that.”

Portman’s term as White House budget director was one of the shortest stints since the Reagan administration.