Over 28 years in Congress, John Spratt ’64 became an unrivaled authority on defense and budget matters. His career ended in November, a day after his 68th birthday, when the Republican tide swept the GOP to power in the House and washed away many of its few remaining Southern Democrats.
By Jim Morrill
Days before his first inauguration in 2001, President George W. Bush invited a dozen congressional leaders to Austin to discuss America’s defense policy.
One by one, the guests made a case for their favorite weapons system: the B2 bomber, new tactical fighters, and Bush’s own favorite, a missile defense system. All programs that would have hiked defense spending by billions of dollars a year. Then the congressman from South Carolina took the floor.
“Mr. President, you’ve got a unique opportunity here,” Democratic Rep. John Spratt said. “If you do everything the people in this room want, we won’t have a balanced budget.”
Instead, he argued that using the Social Security surplus to buy down the national debt would strengthen national security in other ways. Bush, he recalls, “professed interest, but not for long.”
Spratt is a 1964 Davidson graduate and former student body president who went on to earn a master’s in economics from Oxford and a law degree from Yale. For four years, he chaired the House Budget Committee as a top lieutenant to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.
In a capital often driven by ego and acrimony, Spratt was unpretentious and disarmingly civil. With bushy eyebrows and retreating hairline, he looked more like a professor than power broker. Measured and soft-spoken, he rose on the strength of intellect and hard work.
“He’s not a soundbite guy, never has been,” says Rep. Jim Clyburn, South Carolina’s last Democrat in Congress.
“You go ask him a question about a program, you might get a history of the program. He’s old school. And that’s what made him so good.”
Over 14 terms, Spratt picked his battles and dove into complex issues with what one reporter called a puzzle-solver’s patience for detail. Washington was an intellectual feast. When colleagues adjourned to their favorite watering holes, he sought out lectures at think tanks. A night owl since college, he would read until one in the morning. He was as comfortable discussing Soviet tritium production or 19th-century German literature as politics.
“He’s kind of a Renaissance guy,” says Rep. Mel Watt, a Charlotte Democrat. “He knows music. He knows art. He knows history. He’s got a natural curiosity about stuff and is constantly learning and growing.”
Though Spratt was a former Army captain who’d served in the Pentagon, his evolution as a defense expert came about by accident. After striking out on preferred committee assignments in his first term, he ended up on Armed Services. From there he played key roles on an array of defense issues. As chair of a panel on the controversial “Star Wars” program, he helped cut spending on that and other costly programs, including the MX missile.
His proudest achievement in defense: helping pass a moratorium on nuclear testing, still in effect almost two decades later.
“He was one of the few leaders in the House in 1990 who recognized the opportunity to wind down the Cold War by matching the Soviet moratorium with a U.S. moratorium on nuclear testing,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “All this from a lawyer from York, South Carolina.”
But it was on the budget that Spratt enjoyed his greatest success.
By 1997, America hadn’t balanced its budget in three decades. Recent spending plans had chipped away, but a balanced budget was still a dream. That year, Spratt was elected top Democrat on the House budget committee after promising to “finish the job.” His friend Erskine Bowles of Charlotte had just become President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff.
“I told Erskine, ‘I have a mandate and I want to work with you. We’re going to be pushing hard for a balanced budget plan.’ He said, ‘I told the president the same thing.’”
For weeks the two met in Capitol hideaways with a handful of top officials, including GOP leaders Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich. They weren’t Spratt’s biggest challenge. “Holding our own troops in line was the single hardest part,” he says. But by spring, they had an agreement. “
John was one of the few people early on who, A, believed it was possible and, B, had the knowledge to make it a reality,” Bowles says. “He absolutely led this effort in the House. He gave us the credibility to get it done…. He has a presence about him that commands that real respect. He’s the kind of person people will listen to.”
In recent years, Parkinson’s disease has left Spratt with an occasional tremble. Last fall, that accentuated the contrast with his Republican opponent, Mick Mulvaney, an energetic 43-year-old businessman backed by the Tea Party and more than $2 million from outside groups. That the longtime deficit hawk could be successfully branded a big-spending liberal struck many as ironic.
“His credentials,” says Democratic Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill, “are simply not open to question.”
On the day the new Congress was sworn in, Spratt watched the action on C-Span from his home in York. Asked about his legacy, his thoughts turned back to Davidson and his senior thesis about Thomas Jefferson and his philosophy of generational stewardship, that “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living.”
“Elective politics is a worthy pursuit,” Spratt said. “I would like to leave a legacy of assurance that in public office you can make a difference. I hope my experience can be a beacon to others to run for office.”
Jim Morrill is the political writer for The Charlotte Observer.
John Spratt’s impressions of the five U.S. presidents he’s worked with during 28 years in Congress.
Ronald Reagan: “Taught us all that oratory’s so important, that the way you say things is almost as important as the things themselves.”
George H.W. Bush: “A good man and a decent man who didn’t have the ability to communicate effectively with the American people, especially in hard times.”
Bill Clinton: “Bright, very quick study and very much engaged in everything going on in the government. In that sense he was very much like Lyndon Johnson. Really had a clarity of thinking and a clarity of expressing himself that was remarkable.”
George W. Bush: “Smart and clever but not terribly deep. Much too apt to stick to his own orthodoxy as opposed to thinking outside the box, coming up with new ideas.”
Barack Obama: “Very bright and personable and very effective on his feet. While he still has things to learn, he’s a quick study. He’s probably Clinton’s intellectual equal. He’s probably been more productive a president than he’s given credit for.”
Barbara Kinney, The White House