After all, in his 22 years as U.S. senator plus 6 years as North Dakota Tax Commissioner, he's already seen and handled it all, financially. (See Profile of Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota.)
Kent Conrad usually leads with a unruffled, rational temperament, fortified with charts, statistics and and a controller's perfect recall of budget nuances and financial statement details. In 2006, Time magazine named Conrad one of America's Best Senators, dubbing him "the statistician" and "careful in his habits."
Why, then, did Budget Chair Conrad respond to Obama's budget plan more like a sparring Republican rival than a Democrat who heartily campaigned for presidential candidate Obama? Why did Conrad curiously go to the enormous effort of presenting his own fully-fleshed, detailed budget as an alternative to Obama's budget?
Why has the budget-markup process morphed into a hilarious smackdown between the two longtime Budget Committee leaders, two of the most straight-laced politicians in D.C. Witness this biting exchange today:
- Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) - "I'd like to suggest to the chairman that he might want to support this because, you remember, you asked me two years ago not to take a vote on it... So I did not ask for a vote on it and you said it was a very statesmanlike thing for me to do at that particular time and so I would hope that you would return the favor."
- Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) - "You know, I used to like you. Let me just say: Oh, you are good."
- Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) - ""Well, your wife said the same thing."
Wants to Be Seen as Deficit Hawk?
Liberal pundit Matthew Yglesias thinks it's because Conrad wants to be seen by voters as the "kind of guy who’s not afraid to take an axe to the president’s proposals." Writes Yglesias at ThinkProgress:
"The contrast between the volume of huffing and puffing Kent Conrad did when presented with the CBO analysis of Barack Obama’s budget and the changes he actually made when writing his proposal is a pretty telling Washington story...
"Long story short, Senator Conrad cares about the deficit and is taking some action to make it smaller. But he also cares a great deal about being seen as a deficit hawk... "
Sure, I can see Yglesias' point. But frankly, that's D.C. politics as usual, and Sen. Conrad's weirdly angry behavior is anything but usual. Normal political behavior of a career politician doesn't fully explain Conrad's week-long rant.
Worried about "Sweetheart" Mortgage Deal?
Some postulate that Sen. Conrad might be a a bit worried about his constituents' reactions to the 2008 news that he was one of two U.S. senators who received a discounted "sweetheart" mortgage deal from Angelo Mozilo, the now-discredited former President of Countrywide Financial.
Admittedly, Conrad initially dealt gracelessly with this sticky issue by claiming that "I never met Angelo Mozilo." In fact, Conrad reportedly called him to set the deal, rather than meeting Mozilo in person.
Sure, I can see this possible point, too. But Kent Conrad is quite admired in North Dakota, and he's not up for reelection until 2012. His messy mortgage for a beachside vacation home in Delaware will be long forgotten by then.
Besides, Sen. Conrad donated to charity the $10,500 he saved on the Countrywide deal, and has since refinanced the offending mortgage. Conrad's mortgage mess is history... politically, nothing more than small slip, now corrected.
Incensed Over Obama Budget Cuts of Farm Subsidies?
I suggest that, in addition to the above issues, Sen. Kent Conrad is unusually incensed that President Obama's budget cuts heavily into subsidies for farmers... subsidies that Conrad has fought vehemently for over his long Senate career. Reported the Environmental Working Group about the Obama budget:
"President Barack Obama is taking aim at federal farm subsidy payments... Obama said he wants to stop the subsidies known as direct payments to farms with annual sales revenues of more than $500,000. The move would save about $10 billion over 10 years...
"Obama also wants to lower the overall cap on farm subsidy payments from $360,000 to $250,000... Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense noted that Congress has defeated previous attempts to aggressively tighten the limits."
Sen. Kent Conrad led Congressional efforts to stop cutbacks of farm subsidies. And Conrad doggedly pursued passage of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 ("the farm bill"), which critics derided as a lobbyist-driven "cornucopia for rich farmers."
Sen. Conrad tellingly snapped on March 11, 2009 during hearings on Obama's budget:
"... you know I represent an agricultural state. I just spent the last year-and-a-half getting a Farm Bill passed, and we paid for the Farm Bill. We paid for the Farm Bill, but precious little else paid for around here.
"I was a little taken aback to read that people are suggesting somehow the Farm Bill is not fiscally responsible... !"
No issue has been nearer and dearer legislatively to Kent Conrad than support for farmers.
And perhaps not so coincidentally, Sen. Conrad's budgetary alternative to Obama's budget plan struck hard at the issues nearest and dearest to Barack Obama, and at the very heart of Obama's campaign promises: health care and middle-class tax cuts. The Washington Post reported this week:
"... Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said he would leave out new spending for Obama's proposed expansion of health care coverage, a program likely to cost in excess of $1 trillion over the next 10 years, as well as the president's proposal to make permanent an $800 tax credit for working families... "
Sen. Conrad knows well that health care is Obama's pet legislative concern above and beyond all other domestic issues, just as farm subsidies are Conrad's pet legislative concern.
Hardball Legislative Chess with Obama
Conrad could have chosen to cut in innumerable areas other than health care... but he deliberately chose the area that Obama most cares about.
Why is Sen. Kent Conrad so unusually angry over the Obama budget? A fit of pique? Resolute determination to protect his base of farm voters?
Or is Conrad's alternative budget a bit of hardball legislative chess with a freshman President who doesn't know the ways of Senate budget matters nearly as well as the powerful Senate Budget Committee Chair?
And why is Conrad wielding such a sharp, anger-fueled ax to the budget promulgated by the '08 presidential candidate he long supported?
Obviously, I don't know for sure. But this I do know: Sen. Conrad's discounted Countrywide mortgage, and his clever disposal of the controversy, appeared to be suspiciously connected to his lofty perch as Senate Budget Chair.
In the same way, Sen. Conrad's radical hacking of President Obama's signature issue, health care, appears to be suspiciously connected to Obama's scaling back of Conrad's signature issue, subsidies for farmers.
I wonder if Sen. Grassley has any inside info from Sen. Conrad's wife on that?
Profile of Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota
The Zoo, March 26, 2009: Senator Conrad Rejects Obama’s Plan to Cut Millionaire’s Subsidy