Budget Chairman Race: Three Candidates, Few Differences

Republican Steering Committee meets Tuesday to recommend Diane Black’s replacement

From left, Reps. Rob Woodall of Georgia, Bill Johnson of Ohio, and Steve Womack of Arkansas are vying to be the next House Budget chairman. The Republican Steering Committee will meet Tuesday to make its recommendation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photos)

Three Republican congressman elected in 2010 who want Congress to overhaul mandatory spending programs and believe they have the consensus-building skills to make it happen are all competing to be the next House Budget chairman. 

The three-way race between Reps. Rob Woodall of Georgia, Steve Womack of Arkansas and Bill Johnson of Ohio has largely been conducted behind the scenes as the candidates have reached out to colleagues on the Republican Steering Committee.

The 32-member panel charged with making recommendations on committee assignments will meet Tuesday evening to hear the candidates’ formal pitches and vote on its choice. The House Republican Conference must ratify the choice, but that is routinely done without objection.

The winner will become the third Budget chairman in as many years. Chairwoman Diane Blackis relinquishing the gavel to focus on her run for Tennessee governor. She gives up the post roughly a year after she replaced Georgia’s Tom Price, who became Health and Human Services secretary but has since resigned. Price was chairman for just two years, succeeding Paul D. Ryan who took the gavel of Ways and Means in 2015 before becoming speaker. 

Watch: Welcome Back, Now Hurry — Congress’ Top Priorities for January

Roll Call interviewed the three candidates and found they share many goals, such as curbing mandatory spending on entitlements, reducing long-term deficits and overhauling budget processes. 

Heading into the fiscal 2019 budget season, Woodall, Womack and Johnson regard changing entitlements through the budget reconciliation process as a priority, but said they would want to discuss it with the conference before making any decisions.

The candidates all favor overhauling the budget process but cited different examples of possible changes.

Woodall talked about moving the fiscal year to the calendar year and changing other statutory budget deadlines.

Johnson said he favored altering the Budget Control Act for “today’s world,” and reauthorizing the Congressional Budget Office for the first time since its inception in 1974.

Womack said he wants the Budget panel to examine the metrics the CBO uses to issue its analyses.

The three candidates acknowledged that their visions for leading the Budget Committee are similar and suggested the steering panel couldn’t make a bad decision. But each argued his own background made him ideal for the job. 

Seniority factor

While all three candidates entered Congress in 2011, Woodall was the first to join the Budget Committee as a freshman during the 112th Congress.

This provides him with seniority over Womack, appointed to the committee in the 114th Congress, and Johnson, who joined later that term to replace Rep. Marsha Blackburn — who left the panel to chair a select committee on Planned Parenthood.

The Steering Committee heavily considers seniority, and in a race with few other differences, that could tip the scales. 

In addition to his seniority — he ranks sixth behind members who passed on the race — Woodall touted his experience in the previous Congress chairing the Republican Study Committee task force that writes that group’s budget alternative. He said that makes him most familiar with “budget-writing mechanics.”

Womack and Johnson highlighted their budgeting experience from positions they held before joining Congress.

As mayor of Rogers, Arkansas, Womack said he balanced 12 straight budgets without raising taxes, which taught him how to distinguish needs and wants. 

“In some cases, they are strikingly different, and they require tough decisions,” he said. 

Johnson said he helped build and execute annual budgets as chief information officer of a global manufacturing company in northeast Ohio. He said his budgeting skills date back to his time as a small-business owner and even further back to his childhood. 

“I’m a farm boy, born and raised on a mule farm where every day was a survival day,” he said. “You had to budget your resources or you didn’t eat.”

While the past three Budget heads — Black, Price and Ryan — all served on the Ways and Means Committee, the current three candidates bring a different set of committee experience — and relationships. 

Woodall serves on the Rules panel and Transportation and Infrastructure, Womack serves on Appropriations and Johnson on Energy and Commerce.  

In addition to seniority and other experience, the Steering Committee considers members’ willingness to be a team player. Part of that is measured through fundraising and how much money the candidate has contributed to the National Republican Campaign Committee, but this criterion is likely less important in the Budget race since donors are more interested in giving money to members of authorizing committees. 

Relationships matter

Beyond experience and fundraising, another place the Steering Committee could look for differences is in tactics and relationship-building. 

All candidates admitted that if picked, it won’t be an easy job developing a budget given the diverse views in the GOP conference.

Black and Price both struggled to produce budget resolutions supported by 218 Republicans on the floor. Given that it is a partisan blueprint, Democrats typically unanimously oppose the budget.

Heading into 2018, Ryan has talked about using the fiscal 2019 budget reconciliation process to change entitlements.

House Republicans, including Woodall, Womack and Johnson, appear mostly united in that goal. But they will be challenged when it comes to specific spending-reduction targets — the House-passed fiscal 2018 budget called for $203 billion in cuts — and how to break that total down among various authorizing committees. 

“I go in with no illusions that it will be easy,” Womack said. “It will be difficult, and perhaps unpleasant at times.”

Regarding the challenge of building consensus among Republicans, Womack said he has the necessary leadership skills developed from his time in the military, business and local government, as well as his work on the GOP whip team and the relationships he has built with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy as part of his support network. 

Johnson cited his ties to diverse groups in the House. He is a member of the conservative Republican Study Committee, moderate Tuesday Group and bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. 

“My leadership style is a very participatory leadership style,” he said. “It’s about networking. It’s about sitting across the table with the stakeholders.”

Woodall said he would model what Black did in building consensus “through some really difficult and heartfelt disagreements.” To be more open about what priorities can be accomplished within the constraints of trying to balance a budget, Woodall said he’d focus on a handful of goals instead of promising 150 things.

“It is going to be a hard year no matter who is running the show,” he said.

Senate complications 

What makes the Budget chairman’s job even harder than steering a budget resolution through the House is he also has to reconcile it with the Senate so something can pass both chambers.

That does not occur every year and the appropriations process goes on without it, but a joint budget resolution is needed if Republicans want to use the reconciliation process again in fiscal 2019 to advance legislation they expect will not muster Democratic support, such as altering entitlements. 

In President Donald Trump’s first year, the Republican-controlled Congress used the fiscal 2017 reconciliation process to attempt to overhaul the health care system and failed. But they used the fiscal 2018 reconciliation process to rewrite the tax code.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled an entitlement overhaul is not on the chamber’s 2018 agenda, a nod to the GOP’s now tighter 51-seat majority after the Alabama special election. 

“It is obvious that Sen. McConnell has different ideas about what needs to happen immediately,” Womack said. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

Woodall also said the House needs to set its own budget course.

“Wherever we end up with the Senate thereafter, the fact that we laid out a conservative vision first is going to put us in a better place,” he said. 

Johnson, when asked about working with the Senate, was less specific about whether the House should charge ahead on its own but said he would build relationships with his counterparts there “so there are no surprises at the end of the day.”

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