A Fiscal Paul Revere

Before LeBron, there was Jordan.

But the original was Dr. J., the Afro-coiffed, gravity-defying, windmill dunking sensation for the Philadelphia 76ers.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) is now the leading budget hawk on Capitol Hill. But before Ryan, there was a Jordan or even a Dr. J. And that was the late-Sen. Warren Rudman (R-NH).

Rudman died Tuesday in Washington of cancer at the age of 82.

Rudman served two terms in the Senate, retiring in early 1993. And he understood the fiscal crises that the U.S. now stares at years before anyone else.

“He was the Paul Revere of the budget,” said Bob Stevenson, who served Rudman as a top aide during his entire 12-year Senate career. “He wished we would have made these changes 25, 30 years ago.”

And back in 1985, Rudman’s name permanently graduated into the political vernacular as one of those unique, only-in-Washington, surname constructs.

You’ve heard of Dodd-Frank. Sarbanes-Oxley. Glass-Stezgall. Smoot-Hawley. Simpson-Bowles.

Warren Rudman was the rhetorical keystone of the “Gramm-Rudman-Hollings” troika.

Deficits skyrocketed back in the mid-1980s. And Rudman teamed with then-Sens. Phil Gramm (R-TX) and Fritz Hollings (D-SC) to craft a program to balance the budget by the early 1990s.

And the key to enforcing Gramm-Rudman-Hollings? That would be the first sequester.

Sound familiar?

Washington is now in full-panic mode as the federal government faces a potential sequester on January 2. A “sequester” is an across-the-board set of mandatory spending cuts which start in January unless Congress acts. Lawmakers and President Obama agreed to this scheme in August, 2011 when they forged a deal on the Budget Control Act. That was a package to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for excavating at least $1.2 trillion in spending cuts. The method contemporary lawmakers agreed to was the formation of a “supercommittee.” They charged this special panel of bipartisan House and Senate members to locate the fat in federal spending – and perhaps tweak tax and revenue codes to fill federal coffers.

But the supercommittee stumbled spectacularly, potentially triggering the sequester and simultaneously slashing federal spending to the tune of more than eight percent at most agencies and departments.

Rudman and his colleagues Gramm and Hollings aimed to impose spending reduction targets between 1985 and 1991 to balance the budget. The sequester was a threat, much like the Sword of Damocles which swung over the supercommittee. If Congress and the president failed to meet the spending reduction targets, the sequester would kick in.

Staff directors from key Congressional authorizing committees shuddered in fear at the thought of the sequester. They didn’t want to be the panel which overspent and would be blamed with initiating the sequester.

The sequester, whether the federal government hits it or not as a part of the “fiscal cliff” in January is, for good or ill, part of Rudman’s legacy.

But Rudman was ahead of the game.

“He was a student of history. He saw inflation at double digits. Unemployment at double digits. And so he began to pay attention to these issues.” said Stevenson. “That started to set off alarm bells.”

Back in the early 1980s, few grasped the threat posed by government spending and burgeoning entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security better than Rudman. Nearly every battle now waged today in Washington centers on these fights. Bills over transportation and farm spending used to be bipartisan affairs. They’ve now devolved into donnybrooks as conservatives and liberals war over spending and scope of the bills. The same is true over run-of-the-mill measures just to keep the government running as conservatives try to extract spending reductions in these measures. It’s the same reason why the sides will likely skirmish if House Republicans try to overhaul the tax code sometime next year. And this is why Capitol Hill plunged into a battle royale in the summer of 2011 as lawmakers struggled to increase the debt ceiling.

Stevenson says one of his first assignments on Rudman’s staff was to write a press release defending the senator’s vote in February, 1981 to hike the debt limit.

The government wanted to increase the debt limit to $1 trillion on that vote. The debt now exceeds $16 trillion. It’s likely President Obama will ask Congress to up the debt ceiling north of $17 trillion sometime in the next few months.

“He wished we would have taken stronger changes in the ‘80s because strong changes then would have big results today,” said Stevenson.

Fiscal issues were central to Rudman’s agenda and time in Congress. He left Capitol Hill frustrated in 1993, ceding his seat to former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), who later chaired the Senate Budget Committee.

Stevenson said Rudman grew tired of the Senate’s pace.

“He was a pilot. And pilots always said it’s 99 percent boredom and one percent exhilaration,” Stevenson said. “He thought he could do more from the outside rather than the inside.”

Rudman then formed the Concord Coalition with late-Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-MA), a budget watchdog think tank, named after the Granite State’s capital, Concord.

In 1992, Ross Perot arrived on the political scene as a viable third-party contender for president. Part of Perot’s appeal stemmed from his attention to the same issues championed by Rudman.

The New Hampshire Republican devoted much to solving these fiscal issues. And yet, Congress and the administration stand on the precipice of the fiscal cliff and stare directly into the pupils of a sequester.

These crises not only outlived Rudman. They got worse.

“He knew as much about the federal budget as anyone who ever served in this town,” said Vice President Biden who served alongside Rudman in the Senate.

“Warren was the embodiment of Yankee sensibility and New England independence. As an early advocate for fiscal responsibility, he worked with Republicans and Democrats alike to call attention to our growing deficit,” said President Obama.

He called attention to it for a generation. But there’s now the thought that Congress and the president could right the ship if they avoid the fiscal cliff.

“He would say get it done,” said Stevenson of his former boss. “It’s too important for the future of the country.”