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Washington Honors 'Gold Standard' Public Servant Ed Lorenzen

The U.S. Capitol building at sunrise.
Andrew Harnik
The U.S. Capitol building at sunrise.

There are about 19,000 staffers working on Capitol Hill for the 535 House and Senate lawmakers who so often see to it that Washington, D.C., doesn't work as well as they do.

On Tuesday, hundreds including GOP and Democratic party leaders, current and former lawmakers and the Beltway's coterie of budget wonks gathered at the Library of Congress to pay tribute to Ed Lorenzen, a veteran congressional aide and budget specialist who Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., praised as the "gold standard" for staff on Capitol Hill.

"It's been a long, long time since I've seen this many budget nerds all together in one place," Warner quipped. The senator is one of dozens of lawmakers who worked with Lorenzen over a two-decade-long career on Capitol Hill as a top budget adviser for Democrats including former Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Texas, and current House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. It was during that stint that he helped author PAYGO (pay-as-you-go) budget constraints that were intended to require any new legislation affecting taxes or spending not add to the deficit.

Lorenzen's expertise landed him adviser roles for President Obama's 2010 Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform led by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles (they failed), as well as Warner's 2011 Senate "Gang of Six" that also attempted to tackle deficit reduction (they failed too).

At the time of his death, he was working for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. One of his last budget memos drafted in January included this prescient prediction for the spending bill under negotiation in Congress at the time: "Rumored budget deal is shaping up to be very costly." Congress passed a $1.3 trillion spending bill in March, which is projected to add to the deficit and the debt by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

CRFB President Maya MacGuineas recalled Lorenzen's indefatigable optimism that each new budget negotiation in Washington held the promise of a deal towards a more sustainable fiscal future for the country.

"On an issue that's this hard, Ed was the person after each new defeat would come back, optimistically, to the staff meeting the next morning and have new ideas on how we were going to plow forward. Not just why it was so important but how we were going to win this time — and he was wrong! We didn't, we lost each time!" MacGuineas said, to laughter. "But Ed kept us going in the most remarkable way."

Lorenzen's party affiliation in no way diminished the respect held for him across the aisle, recalled House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Like Lorenzen, Ryan is part of a group of aides and lawmakers who have been at the forefront of the nation's budget battles over the past decade. Lorenzen opposed almost all of Ryan's policy prescriptions, including the GOP's $1.5 trillion tax cut, which he considered fiscally irresponsible, but the two men remained friends.

"We take pride that if you're going to be crazy enough to try and make sense out of the federal budget, and you're going to be really crazy enough to try and do something about it, you're a person who gets respect on both sides of the aisle," Ryan said. "I think it's the hardest thing in this town to do, to fix this problem, and he ran right at the problem."

Lawmakers testified to one of the realities of Capitol Hill: that the reason they so often get credit for their policy expertise is because they rely on the work of staffers like Lorenzen who work behind the scenes of congressional offices and committees. "If (my staff) ever said, 'Don't worry, we checked with Ed.' That suddenly meant I had no more questions," Warner said.

"I can't count the number of times he would work through the night for Al (Simpson) and me so we could survive an oncoming political storm," recalled Bowles.

He likened Lorenzen, and staffers like him, to the Greek myth about Sisyphus, who was punished by having to perpetually roll a huge stone up a hill only to have it roll back down as soon as it reached the top.

"The world is filled with people who will complain about that rock, give floor speeches about that rock, show off their selfies with that rock, blame everyone else but themselves for that rock, but never, ever do a darn thing to push that rock back up the hill, or stop letting it roll back down again," Bowles said, "Our friend Ed Lorenzen was not such a man. Ed Lorenzen never, ever stopped pushing. No, Ed Lorenzen was the measure of what public service ought to be: All heart and no ego. All facts and no fiction. All strength and no quit."

Lorenzen, 47, died in a house fire while trying to save his 4-year-old-son, Michael, who was also killed. His other two children escaped and survived. They were in attendance at Tuesday's memorial.

Lorenzen was a frequent source and commentator for media outlets, including NPR, in helping to explain the federal budget process. In the time it took to write this story, about $136,791,025 was added to the national debt.

"Ed was among our nation's treasures, taken so early, with so much work still ahead, it has been left to us to carry on the work to which he gave his labor, and his love, and his commitment," Hoyer said, pointing to Lorenzen's two surviving children: "We must not fail them."

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Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.

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