Diane Black, Prepping Gubernatorial Bid, Takes Victory Lap

Tennessee Republican finally shepherded budget resolution through House last week

House Budget Chairwoman Diane Black has had an undeniable impact on this year’s budget process, thanks to her efforts to forge a compromise package. (Tom Williams/Roll Call)
House Budget Chairwoman Diane Black has had an undeniable impact on this year’s budget process, thanks to her efforts to forge a compromise package. (Tom Williams/Roll Call)
Posted October 11, 2017 at 5:01am

The first woman to chair the House Budget Committee finally shepherded the fiscal 2018 resolution through her chamber Oct. 5, a traditionally thankless task that she took on after President Donald Trump tapped the former chairman, Tom Price, to be secretary of Health and Human Services.

Rep. Diane Black is now preparing to hand in her gavel after 10 months on the job, so she can focus on her campaign to become Tennessee’s next Republican governor, she announced in early August.

Black still won’t put a timeline on her departure date — including whether she will stick it out through conference negotiations with the Senate.

Some fruits of her labor, however, may end up on the cutting room floor, as key elements of the House budget resolution — including $203 billion in mandatory spending cuts over 10 years and higher defense spending than current law allows — will likely be scrubbed from the final version.

Still, one way or another, Black’s impact on this year’s budget process is undeniable. After all, if not for her efforts to forge a compromise package, the budget process could have stalled out altogether.

Just getting the House version to the floor followed months of work by Black and her staff, including closed-door meetings with fellow lawmakers, negotiations with GOP leadership, a lengthy markup and a two-month delay between the committee vote and floor passage.

“This was a hard lift,” Black said recently. “Some committee chairmen were right on board with us and they were ready to go. They not only took some of our ideas, but they came up with their own ideas. Other committees were more resistant and we had some work to do.”

Black today remains the only Republican woman on the Budget panel, not to mention its first chairwoman. She said she doesn’t “get into the gender thing,” but added that she does believe it’s important to have women in leadership positions.

“I think it’s a good role model for our gals that are coming up — to feel comfortable,” she said.

A ‘credible’ threat

To get members to take her proposals seriously, as both a rookie committee head and a woman, Black said it was a matter of knowing the budget process and policy.

“I have found that if I know my subject matter as well as, or better than, my male colleagues, then I am credible,” she said. “I’m just as smart and I’m just as informed as they are, and then once you make that case and show them you are on equal footing, everything else falls into place.”

Work on the fiscal 2018 resolution got off to a delayed start. Both chambers were working on the GOP health care plan, and there was uncertainty about how long the reconciliation instructions embedded in the fiscal 2017 budget would last. The Senate parliamentarian has since said they expire at the end of the fiscal year, but at the time, some thought the old reconciliation instructions would remain viable until adoption of a new budget resolution.

So Black and her aides worked behind the scenes.

Early in the process, House leadership wanted the budget resolution to include reconciliation instructions for the GOP tax bill — without reductions in mandatory spending. Black cites her committee members and their persistence as key to getting GOP leadership on board with mandatory cuts.

“We just made the case that we can’t ignore something we’ve been talking about for a long time,” she said.

Once she had the green light, Black started with the intention of having each of the 11 authorizing committees reduce their spending by just $1 billion during the next decade — significantly less than the $203 billion that ended up in the final document.

“There was a feeling at first that we would just leave this very small and we would just say $1 billion for each of those committees. But, my committee really felt strongly that we needed to do more than that,” she said. “It may have gone a little beyond what others even thought we could do, frankly. I think we surprised a lot of people.”

Another issue was striking the right balance of defense and nondefense discretionary spending, with members of the Armed Services panel, for instance, advocating increased defense funds above caps imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Black’s proposal included $621.5 billion in defense discretionary spending, or $72 billion above spending limits for fiscal 2018, and $511 billion in nondefense discretionary spending, a $5 billion reduction from the BCA cap. That reduction is far smaller than what many conservatives wanted.

Wheeling and dealing

The long-delayed July markup still wasn’t exactly smooth sailing.

Black and the top Democrat on the committee, John Yarmuth of Kentucky, reached an agreement ahead of time on which amendments would be offered. Democrats had a list of 28 amendments. Black had zero.

After the agreement was reached, South Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Sanford decided he wanted to offer an amendment expressing opposition to the border adjustment tax proposal House GOP leaders initially wanted to include in their tax overhaul plan. But allowing that amendment would have violated the deal with Yarmuth, and Black was having none of it.

Sanford, however, was dogged, even asking Yarmuth in advance of the markup whether he might have Democratic backing for his amendment. Ultimately, Sanford backed down and agreed to a deal with Black that he would be able to talk about his amendment, but not offer it.

Late in the markup, that changed. “Just before the offering of that amendment, I found out that there was going to be a change in what the agreement was,” Black recalled.

Black, Sanford and select staffers went into an adjacent room to talk things over. Sanford again acquiesced under pressure from the chairwoman.

“I just thought it was in everybody’s best interest to stick with what we agreed on,” Black said. “I didn’t feel it was appropriate for us to open this door.”

When asked about his agreement with Black and the last-minute meetings, Sanford said he couldn’t remember all the details but the two had “pointed and direct conversations” about his amendment.

Atypical support

Despite the Sanford amendment drama, the committee reported out the resolution with unanimous Republican support, including that of Freedom Caucus member Dave Brat of Virginia, who’d said before the markup he planned to vote against it.

Senior Budget member Tom Cole said the level of support Black received in committee and within the House GOP Conference is not typical.

“I’ve been on the Budget Committee for seven years. I’ve never seen any chairman pull that off and that includes our current speaker,” the Oklahoma Republican said. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan was Budget chairman from 2011 to 2015.

Despite the support of rank-and-file lawmakers as well as GOP leadership, Black did not have unanimous support to move the budget directly to the floor.

Freedom Caucus members said they would not vote for a budget resolution that set up reconciliation instructions for a tax bill, until they saw a detailed tax plan from leadership. The hard-line conservative coalition as well as other members were concerned that without the GOP ready to move forward in unison on a tax plan, they would run into the same hurdles they experienced with their health care bill — and the same level of public embarrassment.

Black wanted to move the budget resolution to the floor anyway. Ultimately, House GOP leaders decided to wait until there was some consensus on the tax outline, which finally occurred late last month.

‘Wedded’ to a budget plan

After the start of fiscal 2018 on Oct. 1, House GOP leaders began treating the budget resolution more like a vehicle to get filibuster-proof tax legislation, and less like a real blueprint for how a unified Republican government should address revenue and spending.

The Senate also released its budget resolution, which has drastically different discretionary spending levels and reconciliation instructions. Its blueprint allows the tax-writing committees to add $1.5 trillion in deficits during the next decade. There are no mandatory spending cuts, save a token $1 billion instruction to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources and House Natural Resources panels. And because of Senate rules, the resolution must adhere to the fiscal 2018 spending caps of $549 billion for defense and $516 billion for nondefense discretionary spending.

Many of the conservative House lawmakers, who at the beginning of the budget process were pushing for more than $400 billion in mandatory spending reductions, appear prepared to accept the Senate’s reconciliation instructions.

Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said in late September that he sees “an aggressive tax reform policy placed into law” as a top priority with “a secondary priority being the mandatory spending cuts.”

But Black insists that what comes out of a conference committee between the House and Senate remains to be determined.

“I’m wedded to this budget and I’m going to work with it along the way until I can see that it has a path to be seen and considered in its full strength,” she said.