When Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) joins the House Appropriations Committee in January, he’ll be reprising an old role. As chairman of the Florida Senate Ways and Means Committee in the 1990s, he earned the nickname “The Slasher” for his efforts to reduce spending. Many of the decisions he made then were unpopular -- but they worked.
To force Florida agency heads to really examine their budgets, for example, Diaz-Balart asked them to supply him with a list of what their spending priorities would be if they had to cut 25 percent of their budgets. Just asking the question drew criticism.
“All the editorials were blasting me -- saying how I was irresponsible and that even asking, for example, the education community … to look at their budgets was going to hurt education,” Diaz-Balart said yesterday at The Bloggers Briefing, hosted by The Heritage Foundation.
He persisted with the exercise, however, and the results were revealing. In one startling example, university system leaders said they would rather close down campuses than eliminate administrators. So, Diaz-Balart called agency bureaucrats to hearings to reassess budgets line by line -- and, eventually, earned real cooperation from them. Ultimately, priority budgeting across the board enabled the state to spend more money on education, reinstate a previously defunded public safety system and lower taxes.
With that experience behind him, Diaz-Balart is prepared to brave unpopularity again.
“We were able to do all those things just because we had a real effort to go after where the money is -- and the internal fortitude to take the editorial board fits,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to have to do. … We’re going to have to lead by showing it makes sense … but we better be willing to accept the arrows, the darts, the editorial boards, the name-calling and everything else.”
But he’s not out to earn unpopularity for its own sake. He wants House appropriators to tackle out-of-control spending in “a very smart way,” he said. His first suggestion: Start with Obamacare.
“You can’t start talking about spending cuts without addressing the 800-pound gorilla on the table, which is the health care bill,” he said. “Politically, it’s going to be a big deal and I don’t know how we get that done. … It’s going to be very difficult … but [that’s] the easy decision. Then it gets real [because] there isn’t a category [in the budget] that says, ‘limousines to take really rich people to the opera.’ No, everything looks and sounds essential.”
And even though he’s willing to risk disapproval, he’s also optimistic that, when the real slashing starts, the American people will understand.
“Thankfully, the American people are paying attention,” he said. “If the American people continue to pay attention, they will realize that the decisions we will be making are real decisions.”
Tina Korbe is a reporter in the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation.