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Sounding the alarm

The only economist in Congress, newcomer Dave Brat never tires of warning about the government’s reckless fiscal habits

Sounding the alarm

Congressman Dave Brat speaks at the Culpeper Chamber of Commerce. (Bob Martin)

Associated Press/Photo by Carolyn Kaster

‘Our graduating seniors don’t know much at all about running a business, and that’s going to be our economy.’

CULPEPER and RICHMOND, Va., and WASHINGTON, D.C.—Presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump headlined a September rally against the Iran nuclear deal at the U.S. Capitol, but they weren’t the only ones to receive star treatment. Virginia Congressman Dave Brat was barely inside the rally perimeter when a Maryland woman stopped him to get an autograph. Others shouted for his attention, shook his hand, and posed for pictures—including a recent Virginia Tech graduate who proudly informed Brat that she wrote her senior thesis about his 2014 victory.

“Keep spreadin’ the word,” said a smiling Brat, whose energy didn’t diminish even as sweat soaked through his clothes in the 90-degree heat. It’s evident this is the favorite part of his new job: meeting people. He estimates meeting 200 per day.

When Brat took the microphone, he laid blame for the Iran nuclear deal at the feet of U.S. leaders and drew hearty boos when he named the two in his own party: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner.

“The situation we’re in right now is a result of poor leadership,” he told the crowd. “I’m Dave Brat from Virginia—I know what happens when leaders in Washington don’t listen to their voters.”

Fifteen months after his primary win, Brat is still best known as the man who came out of nowhere to defeat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor—one of the biggest political upsets in American history. Now 10 months into his first term, Brat has established a conservative record on many issues, but it is fiscal concerns that drive his daily message. From district town halls to hearings on Capitol Hill, one can find the lone economist in Congress sounding the alarm on the nation’s fiscal trajectory.

“We’ve got 11 years,” he says to constituents, colleagues, and anyone else who will listen—and even some who won’t. “Democrats just laugh [and say], ‘I know what you’re going to say, Dave.’”

Brat’s 11-year warning is based on the Congressional Budget Office’s 2015 report on the long-term outlook of the federal budget. It projects that in fall 2026 (the start of fiscal year 2027) mandatory spending and interest on the federal debt will consume all federal revenue. That means programs including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps—which grow automatically as more people become eligible—will take up the entire budget before a single dollar goes to fund the military, educate children, maintain roads, or pay federal workers. That means even more borrowing and more deficit spending.

How long can the U.S. continue its spending binge before an economic collapse? Brat says 30, maybe 40 years, judging by the path taken in Europe. Brat won’t be around that long: He’s only 51, but he’s term-limited himself to 12 years. Before then, Brat hopes to shove Congress off the fiscal road to a Greece-like collapse.

Brat says his colleagues know the answers to what ails Washington but “crony interests” get in the way: “I can predict every vote according to this,” he said, rubbing his fingers together to illustrate the power of money. “When you see decisions that don’t make sense, that’s why. I’m voting for the country as a whole—and we’ll see how long I stay in office.” 

BRAT GREW UP in a small Michigan town where he played sports every day and endured teasing for his last name. His father, a doctor, paid his three sons $10 for each book they read, and Dave finished 12 to buy his first 10-speed bike.

Brat’s parents took him to church and had him memorize the Heidelberg Catechism, but he says it took years for his intellectual knowledge to become real faith in Christ. Today he identifies himself as a “Catholic Calvinist”—a label he insists isn’t contradictory—and he’s a member of a Roman Catholic church in his district.

“The fundamental piece is faith in Jesus—that’s the main thing,” said Brat, whose favorite theologians include Reinhold Niebuhr, John Calvin, Augustine, and Karl Barth.

Brat graduated from Princeton Seminary and considers himself to be walking in the footsteps of his favorite founding father, James Madison, who lived in what today is Brat’s congressional district. Brat initially wanted to teach systematic theology, but in 1995 he earned a Ph.D. in economics and taught for 18 years at Randolph-Macon College. He now says Judeo-Christian values and free markets are interlocking keys to spur economic growth.

Brat said his wife of 20 years, Laura, and his two children weren’t surprised when he decided to run for Congress, since he’d always had an interest in politics. He said he planned to win from the start.

Eric Cantor was only in his sixth term representing Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, but it was already his fourth year as House Majority Leader. Many constituents felt he no longer represented their interests and welcomed Brat’s challenge, which was largely ignored by national groups. Cantor burned more than $5 million defending his seat—a 40-to-1 spending advantage—but he still lost by 12 points.

Many pundits saw Cantor’s loss as a blow for immigration reform efforts, since the former House majority leader had supported the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” bill in 2013. But every constituent I asked during an August trip with Brat to his district said Cantor’s demise had more to do with ignoring them. Brat calls it a “perfect storm” involving many issues. (Brat still talks tough on immigration, but when he does, it generally ties back into his economic message. He says the welfare state hampers the nation’s ability to welcome more immigrants.)

“I attribute it to God,” Brat told commentator Sean Hannity about his victory on the night he won. “God acts through people, and God acted through the people on my behalf.”

Brat made a campaign promise to visit all nine counties in his district each month, and so far he says he’s kept it. During August visits to two of those counties, Culpeper and Henrico, he met with the Culpeper Chamber of Commerce, dropped in on a Germanna Community College humanities class, and visited a Richmond hospital. “Cantor couldn’t do this,” a constituent told me while trailing him through the emergency department at St. Mary’s Hospital.

At the end of his hospital visit, doctors and staff formed a semicircle around Brat as he warned of the nation’s $18 trillion debt and $127 trillion in unfunded mandates. He recounted taking criticism in July when he filed an amendment to make a $9.3 billion medical research bill discretionary spending, rather than mandatory (the amendment failed). Brat said mandatory spending already consumes two-thirds of the budget, so the Budget Committee can only actually budget the remaining one-third.

“In 11 years, it’s gonna be zip,” he told the medical staff, standing casually with a hand in the pocket of his beige suit. “People think it’s partisan—it’s not partisan. It’s all about K Street.”

Brat argues it’s preferable to implement spending cuts now, rather than suffer the “terrible pain” that will come in 10 years. Growing the economy at 3 or 4 percent annually is also key. He blames overregulation and high business taxes for handcuffing the economy, but the more important battle is ideological. Brat points out that people generally saw business as universally bad until 200 years ago—a change that ushered in an era of unprecedented economic growth around the world—and the old mentality has again taken hold.

“Our graduating seniors don’t know much at all about running a business, and that’s going to be our economy,” he said. “Then morally … kids are being told business is terrible.”

Changing the country’s mood to pro-business may be an even bigger goal than trying to bring fiscal sanity to Congress, but Brat plans to keep trying—and with a smile: “Somehow, in the face of all of this, I’m still happy to be alive.”

J.C. Derrick

J.C. Derrick

J.C. is a former reporter and editor for WORLD.