As Washington struggles to cope with unprecedented deficits and an influx of Tea Party conservatives, perhaps no one will be under the microscope more than Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat. Referred to by The Bismarck Tribune as “the most influential senator North Dakota has ever produced,” Conrad helped write the 2002 and 2008 farm bills, played an active role in comprehensive energy legislation, and helped craft the 2008 financial bailout package. But those accomplishments may pale in comparison to the challenges ahead.
Conrad, 62, was first elected in 1986, but only served one term, keeping a campaign promise not to run again if the deficit was not brought under control. But when North Dakotan Sen. Quentin Burdick died in 1992, Conrad ran for that seat in a special election and won. He technically held both seats for several hours in December 1992.
Conrad’s major priority is balancing the budget, and he has long been a voice for fiscal responsibility. He criticized the Bush administration over its proposed tax cuts in 2001, saying they would lead to burgeoning deficits. In 2002, he proposed an alternative to the president’s budget — a $2 trillion budget with a $90 billion deficit, which he said would pay down the national debt faster than the Bush administration’s budget proposal that year. It never came to a vote in the Senate. Conrad also fought to restore the so-called “pay-as-you-go” rule, which was eliminated by Republicans in 2003 to allow for more of Bush’s tax cuts. But in July 2010, Conrad was among the first few Democrats to announce his support for extending those tax cuts, claiming that “it probably is too soon to cut spending or raise taxes.”
He is a member of the Obama’s bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which proposed a $4-trillion budget reducing plan through tax reforms, spending cuts, and reform of entitlement programs. Although the plan was endorsed by 11 out of 18 commission members — Conrad among them — it failed to garner the 14 votes necessary earn the panel’s official endorsement. Conrad called it a “strong beginning” and urged a summit with President Obama and leaders of the House and Senate. As chair of the budget panel, Conrad would bear a hefty responsibility for turning the commission’s controversial proposals into reality. And as the representative of an agriculture state, Conrad will no doubt be involved in shaping a new farm bill, due in 2012.
Several of Conrad’s former staffers are now lobbyists. Conrad’s former chief of staff for 10 years, Robert Van Heuvelen, founded Van Heuvelen Strategies in 2007. Anissa Rogness, Conrad’s former director of economic development, also went to work at Van Heuvelen in 2008. The firm has largely represented the home building industry, which strongly opposes any cuts to mortgage tax breaks, a key issue for Obama’s debt reduction panel; Conrad co-chaired the panel’s working group on taxes. Genworth Financial hired the firm to lobby on tax reform in 2007, the same year that Conrad was named as chairman of the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Taxation, IRS Oversight, and Long-Term Growth.
Conrad has secured about $370 million in earmarks over the past three years, and makes no apologies. Conrad says he supports a transparent process, but is against banning earmarks altogether. “Congressionally directed spending is responsible for some critical and lasting projects in North Dakota,” he said.
Top PAC Contributors
- National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisers, an advocacy group representing the insurance industry — at least $26,000
- American Crystal Sugar Co., an agricultural cooperative specializing in the production of sugar — at least $25,000
- BNSF Railway Co., one of the largest railway companies in the world — formerly known as Burlington Northern Santa Fe — at least $25,000
- Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance, a leading mutual life insurance company — at least $24,000
- New York Life Insurance Co., another prominent life insurer — at least $23,000
- American Association of Nurse Anesthetists, the professional trade association — at least $22,000
- CSX Corp., an international transportation company — at least $22,000
- Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, yet another large life insurance company — at least $22,000
- Tobyn J. Anderson, former legislative director, is now senior vice president of Lighthouse Consulting Group LLC. Clients include the Environmental Defense Action Fund and the United States Climate Action Partnership
- John P. Fielding, former legislative assistant, now a lobbyist for Steptoe & Johnson, currently representing the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, and the Travelers Companies
- Niles Godes, former director of economic development, is now a lobbyist for Clark & Weinstock. Current clients include Sallie Mae, eBay, and Time Warner Cable
- Aaron Hunter, former special assistant, has been a lobbyist for Greystone Group since 2005. Clients include North Dakota colleges, such as Bismarck State College, Minot State University, and University of North Dakota
- Aaron Severn, former Conrad staff member, is now the director of federal legislative affairs at the American Wind Energy Association, which has given Conrad at least $7,500 over the past four years
- Robert Van Heuvelen, former chief of staff, founded lobbying firm Van Heuvelen Strategies in 2007.
- Anissa Rogness, former director of economic development for Kent Conrad, is now a lobbyist for Van Heuvelen Strategies. Van Heuvelen now represents health care groups, alternative energy companies, the Washington Tax Group, and Genworth Financial. Rogness represents the American Health Care Association and a number of clean energy companies like First Solar, Imperium Renewables, Nanosolar, and Renewable Biofuels
- Conrad secured more than $369 million in earmarks from 2008 through 2010, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense
- He obtained $70 million in 2010 for the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program for the Garrison Diversion, which aims to provide a reliable and affordable water supply for North Dakota. He also secured $13 million for the National Rural Water Association that same year, and $11.5 million the previous year
- In 2010, he also secured $1.6 million for Pedigree Technologies, a provider of web-based logistics based in Fargo, and $4.5 million for Alion Science and Technology Corporation, a technology solutions company
- Director of communications Sean Neary said that these projects are “vital to North Dakota’s infrastructure — flood protection, the delivery of safe drinking water — and economic development”
- In 2008, Conrad was accused of receiving favorable V.I.P. loans from Countrywide Financial Corp., but claimed he was unaware of any preferential treatment from the company. The Center for Public Integrity’s 2009 investigation Who’s Behind the Financial Meltdown ranked Countrywide as the largest subprime lender from 2005 to 2007. The Senate Ethics Committee dismissed the complaint against Conrad in 2009, saying it found no “substantial credible evidence” that he violated Senate rules, but added that Conrad should have been more careful to avoid the appearance of receiving preferential treatment. Neary responded that the allegations had no merit, and that the rates Conrad received were not only publicly available at the time, but comparable to market terms and rates