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Top appropriations aide and ‘institutionalist’ Kieffer to retire

Chuck Kieffer served as the top Democratic staffer to three spending panel chairs

Chuck Kieffer worked at the White House budget office before coming to Capitol Hill in 2001.
Chuck Kieffer worked at the White House budget office before coming to Capitol Hill in 2001. (Photo courtesy Chuck Kieffer)

After more than four decades working for the federal government and the past 22 years as a top Senate Appropriations Committee staffer, Charles Kieffer is retiring.

He looks back on a career that began as a budget analyst in 1978 at the then-Department of Health, Education and Welfare under President Jimmy Carter, led to the Office of Management and Budget and eventually landed him at the Senate Appropriations Committee.

[Mikulski: ‘Long before Google there was Chuck Kieffer’]

Along the way, Kieffer — who goes by “Chuck,” or often just “Kieffer” — mastered the intricacies of the federal budget and appropriations process and won the respect of Democrats and Republicans alike, peers say.

“Chuck Kieffer is an institution,” OMB Director Shalanda Young, Kieffer’s onetime counterpart at House Appropriations, wrote in an email. She said his “commitment to public service and mentorship to hundreds of staffers, without the need for accolades, will have a lasting legacy in the Senate and the Appropriations Committee.”

Kieffer, 68, most recently served as staff director to now-retired Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. He served in the same capacity for Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., and Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., when they led the committee.

He and Chanda Betourney, who served as deputy staff director and chief counsel under Leahy, are helping with the transition for Patty Murray, D-Wash., the new Senate Appropriations chair. Longtime Murray aides Evan Schatz and John Righter have stepped into the staff director and deputy staff director roles, respectively.

If Kieffer is an institution, he also is an institutionalist, committed to defending the prerogatives of the branch he works for, people who know him say.

“There are institutionalists wandering around still, but there aren’t many who I think feel as strongly and have committed to it as strongly as Chuck has over the years,” said Bruce Evans, a former GOP Senate Appropriations staff director.

Kieffer accepts the label.

“I believe in the model of bipartisanship in appropriations,” he said. He touts his “long history of understanding the difference between a member and a staffer.” He stresses the importance of staff work “to make sure that when the decisions are made that they’re not made out of ignorance but out of understanding the substance as well as the politics.” 

‘No room for error’

Kieffer laughs easily and often. He is cordial and generous with his time. But he also has a reputation for being demanding on staff — and he doesn’t deny it.

Asked why he is tough, Kieffer laughs even longer this time and gives his reasoning: “Because there is no excuse for being wrong.”

“There’s just no room for error,” he added. “You need to know your subject matter better than anybody else.”

Kieffer has played a key role in multiple legislative deals going back to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He is generally loath to toot his own horn, but Kieffer points with pride to his work on the emergency spending package Congress passed days after the attack.

“There was a bomb scare that required us to leave the Capitol building, and my Republican counterpart and I literally were sitting out on the lawn with his laptop drafting that $40 billion supplemental,” he said. That was “back in a period when Republicans and Democrats worked easily together to solve problems.”

He laments the breakdown in bipartisan collaboration. Noting that Congress has not passed all the appropriations bills individually and on time for almost 30 years, he said, “There’s now an entire generation-plus of members of Congress who don’t remember how the appropriations process is supposed to work, and it’s unfortunate.”

Democrats credit Kieffer for his efforts to protect nondefense discretionary spending from Republican-proposed cuts. “They may not know it, but millions of Americans live better lives because Chuck doggedly fought for their needs over the years,” said Bill Dauster, deputy staff director on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, who has known Kieffer since he worked at OMB.

Republicans say Kieffer was a determined advocate but never let things get personal.

“He was a tough negotiator on behalf of his priorities but a good partner when the time came to work a fair deal with the multiplicity of stakeholders sorting out spending bills,” Eric Ueland, a former top Senate GOP aide, said.

Bipartisan history

Kieffer’s career at OMB began in 1985 when he was hired by David Stockman, then director of the agency under GOP President Ronald Reagan. He rose to chief appropriations analyst under President George Bush, another Republican, later serving as acting associate director of legislative affairs under Democratic President Bill Clinton.

In 2001, Byrd lured Kieffer to Senate Appropriations, where he eventually rose to staff director.

“The first week on the job he told me that I came from OMB where it’s all about policy,” Kieffer said. “But in the Senate it’s about relationships and counting votes. And that was just outstanding guidance for me as a new Senate staffer, and it proved true.”

When Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, took over as Appropriations chairman after Byrd vacated the post in early 2009, Kieffer stepped down but remained with Byrd as a top aide.

Mikulski brought Kieffer back as staff director when she took over the committee. When Leahy succeeded her as ranking Democrat, he retained Kieffer in the position.

Kieffer said he imbibed his commitment to public service from his parents, who taught him that “we’re here to make the world a better place by serving other people.” His father, Jarold, was instrumental in establishing what would become the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, among other federal jobs. 

Looking back on actions that gave him special satisfaction, Kieffer highlights the following:

  • Helping to write $5 trillion worth of COVID-19 aid legislation “from my basement in Annandale. … That was a strange experience.”
  • Working with Leahy to bring back earmarks two years ago after they were banned by Republicans. Under current transparency rules in the Senate, he said, “there’s now actually more scrutiny over the 1 percent of discretionary spending that’s earmarked than any other part of the budget.”
  • Increasing the number of women serving as professional staff on the committee from five in 2001 to more than 30 today.
  • An unsuccessful effort to end the Iraq War through a provision in a 2007 supplemental appropriations bill that President George W. Bush vetoed. “That was something I was proud to participate in because it was a war of choice that was not necessary,” he said.

Pondering his future, Kieffer would like to “find something that keeps my mind engaged but isn’t a full-time job.” He’s taught periodically at various universities since his days at OMB, and he said more teaching or volunteering are possibilities.

Kieffer “has a wicked wit and is a great storyteller,” Dauster said. He added that Kieffer spoke to his class at the University of Pennsylvania and was “particularly informative and colorful at the same time.”

Nor does Kieffer rule out getting back on the trombone, an instrument he took up in the sixth grade at the suggestion of his musician mother.

Weeks after graduating from William & Mary in 1976, Kieffer landed a spot in the Washington Redskins (now renamed the Commanders) band, which came with the bonus of free game tickets. He played in the band for 26 years until his work under Byrd kept him away from rehearsals.

Kieffer hasn’t taken up the instrument for a while, but “that’s one thing that might come back,” he said.

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