Being politically active was a must for Tom Kahn.
He grew up in a house where Jewish identity, Israel and politics were the most common subjects discussed at the dinner table, and that led him to find his moral compass in a niche area of public policy: the federal budget.
Kahn, 60, retired last month from his position as Democratic staff director for the House Budget Committee last month after 19 years in the job. In all, he spent more than three decades on Capitol Hill.
“If you want to know a person, you look at his wallet,” he said in his new office at the American Association of Government Employees, where he has been legislative director for a month. “And that makes sense to me — because if you really want to understand a person, look at how he or she spends his money. What’s important to him. How much he spends on food. How much he spends on housing. How much he spends on charity.”
Behind the tables of numbers that form the federal budget, are “millions and millions of people that depend on things like food assistance or housing assistance or refugee assistance or student loans,” Kahn said.
One of his most notable accomplishments came in 1997, the year when he became the minority staff director of the House Budget Committee. He helped facilitate the budget negotiations between President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) that led to four consecutive years of budget surpluses.
Kahn does not brag about his role in the negotiations, but he emphasizes that setting spending priorities for the country is a key test for any politician.
Kahn believes the United States economy, prosperous in the 1990s, was damaged by the debt incurred during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as the George W. Bush administration’s two tax cuts that were not paid for. Kahn thinks the only way to balance the budget now will involve cuts to Social Security, cuts to Medicare or raising taxes.
“The American people do not have a good understanding of the budget process at all,” he said. “For example, people talk about the problem of budget deficits and people are worried about government waste, but when you ask them which program would you get rid of in order to cut the deficit the only thing people seem to agree on is to cut foreign aid.”
The Brookline, Mass., native became interested in politics in 1968, when he campaigned for Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey.
“My father loved him because he was a strident supporter of the State of Israel, and a strident supporter of civil rights and equal rights for all Americans,” Kahn said. “And so I remember standing on the street corners of Boston handing out leaflets.”
Kahn said that his other political role models were Israeli leaders David Ben-Gurion and Abba Eban.
“Healing the world, tikkun olam, in my mind is very much tied up in public policy,” he said.
After graduating from Tufts University and law school at Georgetown, Kahn began working on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant to then-Maryland Democratic Rep. Barbara Mikulski (She will soon retire from the Senate). He also worked for Democratic Reps. John Spratt (D-S.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
Kahn fondly recalled the first time he set foot on the House floor.
“It really felt like a hallowed place, because the House floor was where democracy was put in action — the place where our laws were written — and that did not just seem like a political place. It seemed like a sanctuary,” he said. “It is almost a spiritual place.”
Kahn still gets an adrenaline rush from walking into the Capitol. But, he pointed out, the political atmosphere has become increasingly polarized over the course of his career.
“Everybody’s entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts,” he said, quoting the late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “Now people have not just their own opinions but they have their own facts. They have their own cable news cycles, they read their own websites, so they now have their own facts.”
Kahn has earned the reputation of being a unifier between the two parties, said Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), who has been a member of the budget committee for six years and its chairman since last year.
“It takes a cooperative of spirits among the majority and minority parties, and especially the staffs, to be able to continue to work in a collegial way,” Price said. “Tom was always just stellar.”
Most of Kahn’s time on the committee was spent while the House was under Republican control. Price said he and Kahn got along well despite their political differences.
“He understood that just because we differ on policies and strategy doesn’t mean that we can’t work together in a positive fashion and a collegial fashion, and oftentimes in Washington that seems to be lost,” Price said. “He was an absolute gentleman, and it was a great privilege to be able to work with him.”
Another of Kahn’s colleagues from his Capitol Hill days said she still calls him when she is having a hard day at work.
“He has taught me the value of keeping your temper and your tongue closed,” said the colleague, who asked to remain unidentified. “He is an incredibly honorable person, and he never ever loses his temper or engages in any kind of drama.”
Kahn will spend a considerable amount of time on the Hill in his work with the American Federation of Government Employees.
The new job allows him to advocate on behalf of government employees — a group of people he says are not treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.
“These are the people who protect us and keep our prisons safe,” he said. “They’re the people who keep our skies safe, the people who do the cutting-edge research in our national labs against cancer and other deadly diseases. And unfortunately, they are not appreciated.”