How budget negotiators struck a deal in 1990


To reach a budget agreement, make the group of negotiators as small as possible, major players from the 1990 budget deal said at a Nov. 28 panel discussion.

George H. W. Bush administration leaders and former congressmen gathered at a Senate office building to share their experiences from that deal, which was prompted by large deficits and a threat of sequestration.

Little got done until the number of people involved in the talks dwindled, recalled Robert Reischauer, then director of the Congressional Budget Office. For months, 26 principals were involved--and with them came all their staff.

"My view, having been staff, is that that slows down agreements. Any good staff member should be able to provide 10 reasons why [then-White House Chief of Staff] John Sununu's latest proposal is lacking," Reischauer said. "This process went on and on and on, and didn't progress very far at all."

Former Rep. Tom Foley (D-Wash.), who was speaker of the House at the time, remembered thinking at one point that eight participants was too many.

Another House negotiator, Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.), added, "My single most important contribution to that agreement in 1990 was that I did not get in the way."

Frenzel said the negotiations also benefited from having less pressure from the media compared to today's environment. Negotiators didn't have to deal with the instant spread of information on the Internet, constant criticism on television, or masses of emails from angry constituents.

"Mostly, the negotiators labored in blissful anonymity," he said.

The talks were also helped by unexpected and unrelated global events, Reischauer said. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the buildup to the Gulf War absorbed a lot of the public's attention, taking some pressure off the budget negotiations.

"But," he said, "the most important thing and sort of the the unsung hero of our 1990 agreement is really Mikhail Gorbachev," the head of the Soviet Union who oversaw its demise. That made it easier for the U.S. military to scale back its costs and for the federal government to balance its budget later in the decade.

"Had that not happened, this might be judged by history in a very different way," he said.

For more:
- watch the panel discussion on C-SPAN's website

Related Articles:
Available options can save more than sequestration, says CRS
Tax pledge loses some Republican adherents
Large deficits don't doom future generations, says NAF