5 Staffers to Watch on the House and Senate Budget Committees

Stacy Kaper and Amy Harder
National Journal

The House and Senate will be wrangling with their respective budgets this week. There’s little expectation that the two chambers’ products will be combined into a joint budget resolution, but they serve as the starting points for broader budget debates between Republicans and Democrats. Here’s a look at the two Budget committees’ top staffers who are critical to this process.

Evan Schatz, staff director for Senate Budget Committee Democrats.

As Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., prepares this week to try to steer the first Democratic budget in four years through the Senate, Schatz is her go-to aide who will help her try to keep moderates on board without losing the more progressive wing of the caucus. Schatz is the aide who helped Murray assemble a budget that could clear the committee with the support of moderates such as Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. His goal is to repeat the feat on the floor and help his boss push the Democratic budget through the Senate. Because he is well versed in the politics of spending issues, over the last few years he has taken a lead role behind the scenes helping Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., decide which pay-fors to use to offset the costs of legislation. Schatz has worked his way up leadership ranks as a trusted aide to Murray just when her profile has been raised considerably.

Marcus Peacock, staff director for Senate Budget Committee Republicans.

When Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., became the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee in 2011, he knew that budget battles were going to become epic, so he asked his chief of staff to recruit a big gun for the staff director job. Peacock—a veteran of the White House Office of Management and Budget, where he was known for creating a “performance assessment rating tool” used to evaluate the effectiveness of federal programs—was the favorite to fit the bill. Peacock also held a prominent role at the Environmental Protection Agency in the George W. Bush administration.

Austin Smythe, staff director for House Budget Committee Republicans.

The fiscal guru for House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Smythe is a career budget wonk, steeped in federal policy with experience on both sides of the Capitol, in the executive branch, and in the private sector. “My job, as I see it, is to help Chairman Ryan and our terrific staff at the House Budget Committee to achieve his and the committee’s goals in the federal budget process,” he told National Journal Daily in an e-mail. His career path first crossed with that of his boss two decades ago when they were both budget staffers. Smythe started out as an aide on the Senate Budget Committee’s Republican staff in 1984 under former Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M. At the time, Ryan was working as a budget aide to then-Sen. Bob Kasten, R-Wis., who was a member of the Budget Committee.

John Righter, deputy staff director for Senate Budget Committee Democrats.

For nearly 12 years, Righter was a key adviser to former Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who was Budget Committee chairman before he retired after the last Congress. Righter previously had spent six years at the Congressional Budget Office. “John was my numbers guy,” Conrad said in a farewell speech on the Senate floor. “He is the budget world’s equivalent of a chess grand master. There were times that I had John working on six different budget plans, all at once.... Just like a grand master who can play multiple chess games at once, John can juggle multiple budget plans simultaneously.” He has been instrumental in facilitating the transition from Conrad’s chairmanship to Murray’s and is the lead number cruncher on Murray’s spending plan this year. As amendments are considered on the floor, Righter will be on hand with all the numbers flowing back through him.

Thomas Kahn, staff director for House Budget Committee Democrats.

As staff director for House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Kahn says his job is twofold: Criticize the House Republicans’ budget but also, just as importantly, highlight the benefits of the Democrats’ budget, even if he knows it will never become law. After three decades on Capitol Hill, Kahn remains an eternal optimist despite the polarized atmosphere. “It’s been a lot tougher over the last couple of years to find common ground, but we just have to keep working at it,” Kahn says, noting that right now, “sleep is a luxury.” Kahn coordinates regularly with Murray’s staff and also Ryan’s staffers. “We disagree profoundly on policy, but we have learned to respect and to disagree in an agreeable way,” Kahn said of Ryan's staffers.

Hot Seats is a weekly series highlighting significant staff positions in the 113th Congress. To suggest a position or staffer for the list, please tweet to @NJLeadership or e-mail Managing Editor Kristin Roberts at kroberts@nationaljournal.com.