10 Most Economically Literate Members of Congress
From the January/February 2007 Issue
Whatever you may think of their politics, these ten lawmakers have a strong grasp of the economic fundamentals that guide their work.
To compile our list of the most economically literate members of Congress, we interviewed 22 Capitol Hill aides, think tank experts, senior business lobbyists, and lawmakers. We made no litmus test of ideological views or party affiliation. Whatever you may think of their politics, our experts said, these ten lawmakers do have a strong grasp of the economic fundamentals that guide their work. Many of them hail from a business background. But our selections focus on the legislators’ public records rather than their personal histories. Here they are.
Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah)
Although the 6-foot-6 Bennett towers over most of his colleagues, fellow senators and aides say he likes to keep his head down, avoiding the spotlight in favor of serious policy debates. He quietly dove in, for example, to the peso crisis in 1995, helping secure American loans that averted a collapse of the Mexican economy. The performance earned high praise from President Clinton, who calls Bennett “a highly intelligent, old-fashioned conservative.” Before he entered politics, Bennett was CEO of the day-planner maker Franklin Quest, where he increased the workforce from four to 700 employees and sent sales up to $80 million. His dream, he says, is to rewrite the tax code—from scratch.
Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio)
Minority Leader Boehner’s rapid rise through the GOP ranks stalled in the leadership shakeup of 1998, but he has climbed back to the top through a series of legislative victories—including “No Child Left Behind,” which harnesses business methods to improve the public schools. His bill to overhaul the pension system finally became law this summer. Throughout, Boehner, who once served as president of a plastics and packaging firm and has a bachelor’s degree in business, has stood up for free-market principles.
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota)
A former treasurer of his home state, Conrad is known as “Chainsaw” for his aggressiveness in making sure numbers add up. On the Hill, colleagues call him the “chart man” for the visual aids he uses to raise the alarm about deficit spending and spiraling debt. He honed his thinking as a government major at Stanford, and went on to earn an MBA from George Washington University. His wife, a lobbyist for Major League Baseball, says he can update batting averages in his head as he watches games. As the top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, he opposed Bush’s tax cuts and argued for pay-as-you-go rules. “This isn’t about accounting niceties,” he has said. “The baby boomer generation is not a forecast…. They’re going to retire and the government owes them money.” Now, with the changes in Congress, he may have a chance to get the rules enacted.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut)
Dodd, the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, is one of the most business-friendly members of his caucus. He got an important securities litigation reform bill passed over President Clinton’s veto, to the chagrin of the trial bar. Dodd followed up that performance by sponsoring a product liability bill, which fell to another Clinton veto. He has consistently opposed big Republican tax cuts, earning the enmity of taxpayer groups but the praise of budget watchdogs. He says he’ll work closely with the top Republican on Banking, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama.
Rep. David Dreier (R-California)
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts)
Some on the Hill call this man, who earned both his bachelor’s and his law degree at Harvard, “scary smart.” He is to the left of his own caucus, and Frank, the incoming chairman of the House Financial Services panel, describes his philosophy as “capitalism plus.” That is, while he says he believes in free-market principles, he thinks they need to be checked with protections. He fleshed out the approach in a March 2004 speech, calling for moderate wealth redistribution. Going rhetorically where others in his party would likely fear to tread, he said, “Our problem today is too little government.”
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire)
Gregg is a fiscal conservative who has consistently backed President Bush’s tax cuts as drivers of economic growth, while trying to rein in federal spending through comprehensive entitlement reform. He’s just finished a two-year term as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. Although personally close to President Bush, he was not afraid to buck the White House on important policy goals. He voted against the 2003 prescription drug bill, arguing its cost would have to be shouldered by future generations.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Arizona)
Dubbed Arizona’s “un-McCain” for his understated approach, Jon Kyl, who was just elected to a third term, has been a behind-the-scenes force on the nuts and bolts of economic policy and now ranks third in the Republican leadership. He is one of the Senate’s most reliable backers of free trade, lower taxes, and smaller government, making him the rightful heir to Barry Goldwater. He has lately been focusing on trying to forge a compromise on the estate tax, which, under current law, is repealed in 2010 but then reappears in its pre-2001 form the next year.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin)
First elected to Congress at the age of 28, Ryan is a powerful force in debates over economic policy. He was briefly considered for the job of White House budget director. Ryan has used his seats on the House Ways and Means Committee and the Joint Economic Committee to trumpet President Bush’s tax cuts and has called for overhauling the budget process to curb spending. Last year, his line-item veto legislation passed the House; if it ever becomes law (perhaps unlikely over the next two years), it will let presidents pluck spending items out of bills they sign.
Rep. John Spratt (D-South Carolina)
As the new chairman of the House Budget Committee, Spratt combines calls for bipartisanship with measured criticism of President Bush’s budgets and tax cuts. “He’s articulate, and very on top of the data,” concedes one Republican House aide. A graduate of Oxford and Yale Law School, Spratt is often the intellectual firepower behind Democratic critiques of Republican spending. He has a moderate voting record and a history of working across the aisle. But he can be a formidable foe, lately drawing on his post as a leading member of the House Armed Services Committee to criticize sharply the way that Republicans have circumvented normal budget processes to fuel the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tory Newmyer, a native Washingtonian, is a reporter for Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, where he covers the lobbying industry, campaign finance issues, and corporate engagement in big-ticket legislative battles. He formerly covered local and regional politics for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Illustrations by iLovedust
Tory Newmyer, a native Washingtonian, is a reporter for Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, where he covers the lobbying industry, campaign finance issues, and corporate engagement in big-ticket legislative battles. He formerly covered local and regional politics for the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Illustrations by iLovedustSubscribe to The American