DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.
It was a moment for celebration this week for Democratic staffers at the House Budget Committee.
(Soundbite of cheers and applause)
ELLIOTT: The House had just passed the Democrats' budget resolution by a slim 216-210 vote, and the budget chairman, Congressman John Spratt of South Carolina, stopped by the committee cloakroom to enjoy the victory.
Representative JOHN SPRATT (Democrat, South Carolina): I came to applaud you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ELLIOTT: Spratt has a wide grin on his face. His bushy, gray eyebrows move expressively as he congratulates the young staffers.
Rep. SPRATT: We had about a six-vote margin, couldn't afford to lose any. And the quality of the work we did, as we solicited votes one by one, accounts for our success today. And I'm not saying that to butter you up. I mean it from the bottom of my heart.
ELLIOTT: After nearly 25 years in Congress, John Spratt is at the pinnacle of his career. The day his roughly $3 trillion budget blueprint passed seemed like a good time to get to know him better.
Spratt is from a conservative South Carolina district and proudly calls himself a deficit hawk. Now he's a pillar in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's leadership team. Thomas Kahn is the budget committee staff director and chief counsel. He has worked for Representative Spratt for 21 years.
Mr. THOMAS KAHN (House Budget Committee Staff Director): The joke is that there are a lot of staffers who want to be members of Congress. He's one of the few members of Congress who wants to be a staffer. I mean he loves the substance; he loves the policy, you know. He will get mad for telling you this, but you know, on vacation he likes to take old congressional budget office reports to read.
Mr. LEE BANDY (Columnist, The State): John Spratt is not a politician. What John Spratt is, is he's legislator.
ELLIOTT: Lee Bandy is a long-time political columnist with The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina.
Mr. BANDY: Democrats have tried to get him to run for higher office. They've trying to get him to run for governor. They tried to get him to run for the U.S. Senate. He's happy where he is - in the House. Being budget - finally being budget committee chairman.
ELLIOTT: John Spratt certainly appeared happy as we sat down in his Capitol Hill office Thursday.
Rep. SPRATT: We didn't realize how glum we were as Democrats until we finally got back on top. But now that we're on top and we're wielding the gavel, running the hearings, calling the witnesses, turning out the work product, like a budget resolution, it's very satisfying and I'm very content to keep doing what I'm doing.
ELLIOTT: On his office wall is a photograph of President Reagan with veteran Democratic lawmakers Tip O'Neill and Claude Pepper standing behind him. It's from 1983, when Reagan signed the Social Security Reform Bill. Spratt says he hung it there for inspiration, yet the Democratic budget blueprint for the next five years does not tackle the thorny issue of making sure Social Security remains solvent. It does promise to bring the federal budget out of deficit and into surplus, while at the same time increasing spending on education, health care and veterans services. If that sounds like fuzzy math, Spratt says it's doable in part because of the House pay-as-you-go rule.
Rep. SPRATT: Pay-go says if you want to liberalize an existing entitlement program or create a new entitlement program, you have to also establish a revenue source to pay for it, or you have to go and take another mandatory spending entitlement program and cut it by an equal amount.
ELLIOTT: So you've either got to raise taxes or cut spending to maintain that balance.
Rep. SPRATT: That's correct. You've got to keep it deficit neutral.
ELLIOTT: Republicans say that's just a guarantee of higher taxes down the line and that the Democratic spending plan is based on some pretty big if's, like if Congress allows the president's tax cuts to expire.
Rep. SPRATT: The tax cuts, by their own terms, expire December 31, 2010.
ELLIOTT: And that should bring more money into the federal.
Rep. SPRATT: It would if that point if they aren't renewed. Mostly these are very popular tax cuts - the 10 percent bracket. I can assure you, the Democrats will fight to keep the 10 percent bracket because it applies to blue collar working-class Americans. The child tax credit, we supported it from the outset and we'll still supporting it. So there's a whole host of tax cuts which we would undertake to renew.
ELLIOTT: So Democrats like some of the tax cuts, but not all of them. How do you offset that revenue though?
Rep. SPRATT: Well, that's a problem. But first of all, there's $154 billion surplus in the year 2012. Some or all of that surplus could used as an offset.
ELLIOTT: But doesn't that surplus come from the tax cuts expiring?
Rep. SPRATT: To some extent it does. But we've got a tax code that is full of deductions and credits, a lot of them targeted to just a few taxpayers. We've not really had a closet-cleaning in the tax codes since 1986. You can't tell me that a good scrub-down of the code, number one, isn't needed, and that if it were scrubbed down well we couldn't come up with some deductions and credits that are far less desirable than the tax cuts that favor families and individuals.
ELLIOTT: John Spratt's South Carolina district covers a large swath of rural countryside in the north-central part of the state. It's home to Shaw Air Force Base and includes some suburbs of Charlotte and Columbia. Tobacco farmers and textile workers have taken a hit, and despite his talk of needing to cut the deficit, Spratt admits the small towns back home depend on federal dollars for everything from job retraining and business start-ups to interstates and sewer systems.
Spratt is from York, South Carolina. His family was in the banking business. And it's not uncommon to find local Republicans at this Democrat's campaign events.
Your district is very conservative; in fact voted for President Bush the last two presidential elections.
Rep. SPRATT: Fifty-seven percent, so it is.
ELLIOTT: How have you been able to continue to get reelected all these years?
Rep. SPRATT: Well, I go home every weekend. I work the district diligently, and I know my constituency well. They trust me. In addition, there's an old tradition in South Carolina that if somebody is elected, with seniority rises to the position of some importance of the Congress, whether it's Fritz Hollings or Strom Thurmond or Jimmy Burns, they tend to leave us there as long as we can represent the state well, and I'd like to think I do that.
ELLIOTT: I understand that you have pretty deep roots. Your family has deep roots in the part of South Carolina where you're from, that one of the first settlers was a Spratt in that region.
Rep. SPRATT: That's true, that's true. There's a man by the name of Thomas Spratt who came all the way from Northern Ireland in 1730. He's one of the settlers first settlers in Charlotte, North Carolina. His son then moved to a place that's known as Fort Mill, South Carolina. He was the first settler there. It happened to be Indian territory though. And he was befriended by the Catabwa Indians and fought with them in Lord Dunmore's War. And they named him Kanawa(ph), Kanawa Spratt.
The family settled on land. It was owned and set aside for the Catabwa Indians. And the Catabwa Indians were induced by the state of South Carolina to sell that land, cede their title to him in 1840.
The Catabwas eventually decided they made a bad deal. They wanted some or all of their land back. And one of my most satisfying accomplishments here was to see that justice was finally done for the Catabwa Indians. We were able to appropriate $50 million in order to settle that longstanding claim with the Catabwa Indians. And so I was able to go back to Kanawa's heritage and redeem promises that I think he would have been proud to see kept.
ELLIOTT: Well, Congressman Spratt, thank you for taking time to speak with us.
Rep. SPRATT: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
ELLIOTT: Congressman John Spratt of South Carolina is chairman of the House Budget Committee.