By Rob Kunzig
October 1, 2015 at 6:00 am ET
Most people wouldn’t be scared of Paul Winfree. He has a boyish face. He dresses like a Sunday School teacher. If you needed to leave your child with a stranger for 10 minutes, Winfree would be a safe bet.But if you’re a Republican appropriator — if, say, you want to use budgetary processes to defund Planned Parenthood or repeal Obamacare — you should be very, very afraid.
“I’m not trying to get a job downtown,” said Paul Winfree, sitting in his office at The Heritage Foundation. “I’m not trying to move to K Street. I’m not trying to make friends. The reason I get up every morning is that I want to hold them accountable. I want to maintain the process, and I want to make sure the process isn’t abused.”
From his seat at Heritage, Winfree uses his inhuman grasp of the budgetary process to attack those who would appropriate it for political ends – especially if it means committing the cardinal sin of deficit spending.
He grinned, managing to seem completely innocent. But Winfree means mischief. “I know a lot about how the internal beast works,” he said.
And he does, more than several members of Congress, much to their chagrin. When Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) stands before reporters and says Congress should use a reconciliation process to repeal the Budget Control Act, Winfree’s there, saying, No, you can’t. When House Republicans try to use the arcane, little-understood process to defund Planned Parenthood, Winfree shuts them down, writing that the push violates the Byrd Rule, which essentially bars politics from entering the budgetary process.
Winfree can do this because he’s one of the few in Washington who can talk about the Byrd Rule – which allows senators to block matters “merely incidental” to the budget during reconciliation – stipulates with the kind of fluency most reserve for Monday morning sports recaps. The more he talks about it, the more animated he becomes. “This is what really gets me fired up,” he says.
Winfree describes himself as “principled” — normally a big, flapping red flag in Washington, a city where few principles are made to be compromised. But hearing him talk fervently about the budget (or “the Process,” as he calls it, with a capital P), you’re inclined to believe him. Though deeply conservative, he spends more time attacking Republicans than anyone else. During the interview, he didn’t once rail against President Barack Obama — a fireable offense at the arch-conservative Heritage Foundation if there ever was one.
I’m not trying to get a job downtown. I’m not trying to move to K Street. I’m not trying to make friends. The reason I get up every morning is that I want to hold them accountable. I want to maintain the process, and I want to make sure the process isn’t abused. — Paul Winfree
Instead, he reserves his ire for Republican members who abuse the Process by hijacking it for political purposes. Winfree’s most recent target is Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who wants to use the complex budget reconciliation process as a means of defunding Planned Parenthood.
“What they’re trying to do will degrade the budget process, and set precedents that will ultimately be destructive,” he said.
And pointless. Because of the Byrd Rule, Winfree added, any attempt to defund Planned Parenthood via reconciliation is dead.
House Speaker John Boehner found himself in Winfree’s crosshairs when he spearheaded a repeal of Medicare’s Sustainable Growth Rate formula. Designed to control Medicare costs by compensating for overruns by slashing physician payments, the SGR necessitated 13 years of “doc fixes,” legislative patches needed to keep doctors paid.
In January, Boehner directed his staff to kill the SGR once and for all. Doing so would be expensive, and staffers had only a month to negotiate spending cuts to offset the cost of the repeal. The resulting bill eliminated the SGR, but added $140 billion to the deficit.
It passed the House 392-37. As legislators congratulated Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on their teamwork, Winfree was aghast. “The same week that the House passes a budget resolution that proposes 5.4 trillion in deficit reduction, they vote on a doc fix bill that won’t reduce Medicare spending until I’m collecting Medicare benefits.”
Now his cheeks are a little flushed. “That kind of thing just really gets me. I think the members need to be held accountable for that.”
Winfree wrote a piece in The Daily Signal, Heritage’s mouthpiece, crucifying the bill as a “huge budget gimmick.” The article gained the attention of a handful of Senators — Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), David Vitter (R-La.) — who then attempted to force legislators to pay for the bill in full through an amendment. The effort failed, leaving Winfree “so disappointed.”
Still, Winfree’s stand didn’t win him any friends. “They don’t like me very much,” he said. Of Charlotte Ivancic, the Boehener expert who engineered the SGR repeal (profiled by Morning Consult here), Winfree smiled and said: “Charlotte and I are cordial.”
Even though he helped stoke conservative discontent with the embattled leader, Winfree isn’t “terribly excited” about Boehner’s resignation. Of prospective speakers, he said: “I don’t’ know whether [Rep. Kevin] McCarthy’s going to be any better. I don’t know whether [Rep.] Jim Jordan would be any better. But I do know I’m going to hold them accountable.”
He respects members who make principled choices, even if (especially if) they’re unpopular. He cites Sen. Sessions, who earlier this year opposed a deficit spending measure that would allow veterans to visit private doctors.
“I feel like he was an honest, moral guy who respected the process, and was willing to stand up to leadership and special interest groups and others because he saw that he had a duty,” Winfree said. “He had a duty to maintain the process.”
There is one point of quiet pride for Winfree. Apparently, a senior Republican senator (he won’t say who) once remarked to a colleague that Winfree was “dangerous.” The story makes the Williamsburg, Va. native laugh a little. He was once a “cultural interpreter” at the colonial town’s historical district, a cooper’s apprentice who learned how to fashion wooden buckets and barrels from scratch. Nobody looks dangerous in colonial garb.
Winfree earned his bachelor’s degree in economics and math from George Mason University, home to economists like David Levy, James Buchanan and Nobel Prize-winner Vernon Smith. Winfree fell in love with behavioral economics — basically, the chaotic application of economic principles to political and social realities. His senior thesis studied how neural network-like systems could provide models for economic behaviors.
Naturally, he ended up at the London School of Economics, where he remains a Ph.D. candidate even though he left the school to work in Washington more than five years ago. He’s searching for a topic, and Washington is providing him with no shortage of fodder. “I wanted to do something practical,” he said. “Academia isn’t always that.”
After a first stint at Heritage, where he first researched issues of economic mobility, Winfree moved to the Senate Budget Committee, where he spent four-and-a-half years railing against runaway spending. Now that he’s back at one of D.C.’s most conservative institutions, he spends his days attacking Republicans.
“Democrats will put a knife between their teeth and stand by those principles,” he said, paraphrasing a Senate floor speech delivered by Cruz, who was bemoaning the lack of party cohesion. Even if he doesn’t agree with all Democratic principles, Winfree said, their leaders stand by them. “One of the things that Republican leadership will do is set themselves up for failure. They’re good at presenting cover votes. They’re good at papering over the problems and not confronting the issues.”
On his wall hang prints of English economist Charles Booth’s “poverty maps.” Booth sent surveyors from building to building in 19th century London to assess economic conditions. A colored map showed the city in terms of “vicious poverty” to “upper class.” Explaining the prints, he bounced lightly on his feet. “You see, we’re still looking at the same issue areas. What influences mobility in America?”
He’ll find out. Eventually, he might even write his thesis on the topic. But for now, he feels a moral obligation to defend the Process, capital P, and safeguard the American tax dollar.
“A lot of people pay a lot of money in taxes,” he said. “I want to make sure that those resources are taken care of, and not wasted, and that we aren’t just passing on a lower standard of living because we want to consume more.”