Sen. Kent Conrad (D)
Elected: 1986, term expires 2012, 4th full term.
Born: March 12, 1948, Bismarck .
Education: Stanford U., B.A. 1971, George Washington U., M.B.A. 1975.
Family: Married (Lucy Calautti); 1 child.
Elected office: ND tax commissioner, 1981–86.
Professional Career: Asst., ND tax commissioner, 1974–80; Dir., mgmt. planning & personnel, ND Tax Dept., 1980.
Kent Conrad, North Dakota’s senior senator, was first elected to the Senate in 1986. He grew up in North Dakota, and knew personal tragedy early. Conrad was raised by his grandparents after both his parents were killed in an automobile accident when he was just five. One of his grandfathers owned a biweekly newspaper in Bismarck and had been the North Dakota chairman for Robert LaFollette’s Progressive campaign for president in 1924. His other grandfather was the physician for longtime Republican Gov. and Sen. William Langer. It was a family full of connections in the small world of North Dakota politics. Conrad’s first political effort was to lead, in 1968, a campaign to grant voting rights to 19-year-olds. After graduating from Stanford University, he went to work for Democrat Byron Dorgan’s unsuccessful 1974 House campaign. Conrad ran for tax commissioner in 1980 and won. When Dorgan declined to run against Republican Sen. Mark Andrews in 1986, Conrad ran and won, 50%-49%. In 1986, he earnestly promised not to run again unless ‘‘the federal deficit, the trade deficit and real interest rates will be brought under control.’’ By 1992, the latter two arguably were, and he could claim to have worked to trim the budget deficit. Early 1992 polls showed Conrad well ahead, but in April 1992, shortly after his wife was mugged and dragged down a street near their Capitol Hill home in Washington, D.C., Conrad announced he was retiring because he had not kept his pledge. Dorgan ran successfully for his seat.
|Kent Conrad (D)||150,146||(69%)||($3,532,732)|
|Dwight Grotberg (R)||64,417||(30%)||($259,081)|
|Kent Conrad (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2000 (62%), 1994 (58%), 1992 (63%), 1986 (50%)
Then, in September 1992, the elderly Sen. Quentin Burdick, a Republican and no ally of Dorgan and Conrad, died. State law said a special election had to be held after November but before January. Experiencing a change of heart about leaving the Senate, Conrad ran for Burdick’s seat while serving out the last month in his own. He was nominated unanimously at the Democratic state convention. His Republican opponent was Jack Dalrymple, the lieutenant governor. Conrad had far more money and won easily, 63%-34%. For a few hours in December 1992, Conrad technically held both of North Dakota’s Senate seats: He was sworn in December 14 to fill Burdick’s term, and a few hours later, Dorgan was sworn in to fill his. In 1994, Conrad’s new Senate seat came up again. Republican Ben Clayburgh, the 70-year-old former head of the state medical association, accused him of voting most of the time with President Clinton. Conrad responded with an ad saying he voted with Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas more than half the time. In a Republican year, Conrad won by a reduced 58%-42%.
Conrad is an active deal-maker and the chairman of the Budget Committee. His votes have placed him close to the center of the Senate, especially on economic and cultural issues. Throughout his career, he has called for balanced budgets and decried deficits. From the 1930s to the 1970s, Republicans were the great critics of deficits, calling, usually ineffectually, for lower spending. Since the 1980s, Democrats have increasingly taken that stand, Conrad foremost among them, often calling for changes in tax laws to increase uncollected taxes owed, to clamp down on tax shelters and havens and, if necessary, to increase tax rates. When he argues his case on the Senate floor, he often comes equipped with his trademark charts, chock full of numbers and graphs, and familiar to any regular viewer of C-SPAN. In 2001, he lambasted the Bush administration for its tax cut proposals, arguing that lower than expected revenue would lead to deficits. But he did not seek to undo the tax cut. In March 2002, Conrad presented a $2 trillion budget with a $90 billion deficit, which he said would pay down more of the national debt than Bush’s budget. His plan passed in committee, but in the 51-49 Senate there were not enough senators willing to constrain appropriators, and Conrad’s budget never came to a vote. For the first time since the Budget committees in both chambers were established in 1974, no budget resolution passed Congress.
When Republicans held the majority in 2003, Conrad became the ranking minority member on Budget. That year, the Republicans dropped the “pay-go” rule, in place since 1990 and supported by Conrad, that required spending increases and tax cuts to be “paid for” by corresponding spending decreases or tax increases. The change made possible passage of the 2003 Bush tax cuts on dividends and capital gains, and later the extension of various Bush tax cuts. Conrad continued to press, unsuccessfully, for restoration of the pay-go rule. Conrad also tried to focus attention on the surplus in Social Security revenues over benefits, which was reducing the nominal federal budget deficit. But that financial comfort was in jeopardy of disappearing in roughly a decade, when Social Security benefits would begin to exceed revenues. Conrad also complained about Bush’s escalating requests for money to pay for the Iraq war without a long-range plan for covering the costs. He told The Washington Post: “The president, this is his policy. He's got an obligation to tell us how to pay for it.”
When Democrats assumed the majority in 2007, Conrad unveiled a budget resolution that put the budget into balance by 2012, ended the supplemental appropriations strategies used heavily by the Bush administration, and provided for a two-year fix of the Alternative Minimum Tax, which had been designed to ensure that the wealthy paid taxes but in effect had for several years been snaring middle-income taxpayers. His budget called for cutting in half interest rates on student loans, more spending on homeland security, extending the child tax credit and the 10% tax bracket, and eliminating the marriage penalty. Republicans charged that it all amounted to a tax increase, but Democrats envisioned that the Bush tax cuts, set to expire in 2010, would be either allowed to expire or offset at that time. Conrad and House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, a South Carolina Democrat, pushed similar packages through the two chambers in April 2007, and they reached a final agreement in May. The next year, when Bush proposed his final budget, Conrad called it “debt on departure” for the lame-duck president. The Senate and House resolved minor differences between the two chambers and adopted a budget, but they postponed major issues until after the 2008 election.
Conrad also has a seat on the influential Finance Committee, where he voted against the Bush tax cuts and against repeal of the estate tax. But he has been willing to work with Republicans on other issues. He was one of 11 Democratic senators to vote for the 2003 GOP bill creating a prescription drug benefit in the Medicare program—not a perfect bill, in his view, but a step forward. He sponsored bills that in his view would improve it, including one to allow federal negotiation of prices with pharmaceutical companies, a step adamantly opposed by Republicans. In 2005, some advisers in the Bush White House, noting Conrad’s continual warnings about the fiscal difficulties facing Social Security as baby boomers reach retirement age, hoped that he would join in discussions on a long-term Social Security fix. Conrad did sponsor a bill with Republican Gordon Smith of Oregon giving employees automatic enrollment in 401(k) accounts unless they opted out and extending tax credits for voluntary savings accounts. But he, like other prominent Democrats, steered clear of any public discussions or negotiations, and House Republicans, leery of the issue, were happy to see it disappear from the agenda later in the year when Hurricane Katrina struck. In 2007, Conrad supported expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which Bush vetoed. In September 2008, he was among the small number of lawmakers who crafted the $700 billion bailout package for wobbling financial markets.
Conrad is a big booster of government aid for farmers. On the Agriculture Committee, he helped write a generous 2002 farm bill that abandoned the principles of the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act, which had tried to end farm subsidies. As he said then, “No one did better than North Dakota under the current bill.” The state received the equivalent of $2,368 per person in payments, more than any other state. During work on the 2008 farm bill, Conrad used his multiple committee posts to significantly influence the details, including passage of a permanent $3.8 billion disaster fund for farmers and a new sugar-subsidy program. When it came time for the final deal-cutting, he worked with Southern senators on commodity programs and largely preempted Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa, who opposed permanent disaster aid.
North Dakota’s farm interests, particularly its sugar beet farmers and processors, have been increasingly affected by trade agreements. Conrad’s objections helped ensure that sugar was not included in the Australia Free Trade Agreement, but his effort to give House and Senate committees veto power over waivers of limits on Australian beef imports was characterized as unconstitutional and failed. In 2004, when the Bush administration included limited sugar imports from the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean Free Trade Agreement, Conrad spoke out strongly against them. “This is about whether we have sugar in our future,” he said. “This is whether we have 30,000 jobs in the valley. This is about whether we have a strong and vibrant economy in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota.”
On another issue vital to his home state, Conrad assumed an active role in energy legislation in the 110th Congress (2007-08). He was a major supporter of increased use of ethanol and biodiesel, plus coal liquefaction and tax credits for wind energy. North Dakota produces corn used to make ethanol, has major coal deposits suitable for liquefaction and has more wind-energy potential than any other state. In 2008, Conrad organized with Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the bipartisan “Gang of Ten” that sought middle ground on the issue of oil and gas development in the outer continental shelf.
When Conrad came up for re-election in 2006, the Bush White House encouraged popular Republican Gov. John Hoeven to run against him. Conrad ran ads touting his Senate accomplishments, and Hoeven decided not to run. Conrad instead faced a far less serious GOP threat that year in Barnes County farmer Dwight Grotberg. Conrad spent $3.5 million and won 69%-30%, carrying every county. In June 2008, he was embarrassed by disclosures that Countrywide loan officers gave him special treatment on a home mortgage, which he claimed was done unknowingly on his part. He agreed to donate $10,500 to charity and promised to disclose all the details of the transaction.
Conrad is bound to be regarded warmly at the White House during the new Obama administration. Early in the 2008 campaign, he was the second senator to endorse Obama and made appearances on his behalf in early Democratic contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.