When he was just a Randolph-Macon College professor running for Congress, Dave Brat liked to say he would be the only economist in the U.S. House of Representatives if elected.
Now, 15 months into his freshman term in Washington, Brat — who made history in 2014 by upsetting then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-7th — again is drawing attention, sounding the alarm as a conservative naysayer on the federal budget.
“We’re $19 trillion in debt, and that’s going to be paid by our kids,” Brat said in an interview. “We’re having the spending party, and our kids are going to pay off the debt and the interest on the debt.”
The most recent example came last week, when Brat cast one of only two Republican votes against the fiscal 2017 resolution in the House Budget Committee.
In the past, voting against a budget proposal endorsed by your own party’s committee leadership could get you removed from the prized assignment.
But to Brat the economist — whose upset election was credited in part to support from grass-roots conservatives and tea party groups who backed him against Cantor — the vote was a matter of delivering, in an election year, on what he perceives to be his constituents’ demand that he hold the line on spending.
“It needs to be something that when I go home to the district, they don’t say, ‘Dave you got rolled again,’ ” Brat told Roll Call after the vote. “I cannot have that.”
Brat had maintained that the budget resolution — which enshrined a $1.07 trillion spending agreement negotiated last year by the Republican leadership under then-Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio — needed to be at least $1.04 trillion, reflecting $30 billion in spending cuts.
When it didn’t, Brat and Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., pulled their support despite intense pressure from GOP leadership.
Both are members of the House Freedom Caucus, a coalition of roughly 40 conservative GOP lawmakers formed in 2015 to give voice to the limited-government, anti-Washington establishment sentiment embraced by the tea party movement.
Without the support of the Freedom Caucus, House Republicans do not have enough votes to pass the budget.
That has put newcomers including Brat in a position to resist party pressure and cast tough votes, and arguably wield more influence than their status as junior lawmakers typically would afford.
Brat said that if the nation’s spending continues unabated, the deficit will increase by $1 trillion a year and 10 years from now will be $30 trillion.
He said the nation has a “$100 trillion problem” in unfunded liabilities from federal entitlement programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.
“If you don’t solve it, then in 11 years nearly all federal revenue will go only to those programs,” Brat said.
With Congress in spring recess until April 12, it seems unlikely to be put to a vote by the full House before the April 15 deadline.
“So when people ask what should you do with this year’s budget the answer is no, we can’t keep going down the road,” he added.
To Brat, even trimming $30 billion from the budget is “not looking hard enough and not turning the country around at all.”
The lawmaker’s budget bravado has earned praise from conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, whose media outlet, the Daily Signal, noted that Reps. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., and Justin Amash, R-Mich., lost their committee spots when they went against the budget resolution of then-Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan, in 2012.
Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, now is speaker of the House.
“It was a principled position — and their constituents should be proud,” the publication stated.
It also appears to be resonating at home in the 7th District, where Brat is up for re-election in November.
“I believe what Dave is doing is, he is remembering who he is representing — the people who voted and elected him,” said Mark Hile, part of the leadership team of the Henrico Tea Party that backed Brat two years ago and supports him now.
“I’m concerned about the long-term debt of the country, and he’s keeping that aspect in mind. He knows that the government can’t just keep spending without being accountable, and that sometime this debt is going to come back and haunt us.”
After Brat’s upset of Cantor, there was talk of the Republican establishment mounting a primary challenge to the new congressman when he sought re-election.
“Over the past two years, Brat has done a good job securing his relationship with the tea party wing of the GOP, but he really hasn’t developed very strong relationships in the business community or with more traditional Republicans,” said former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican.
“I think a lot of these folks would love to find someone to challenge him for the nomination, but they just haven’t been able to find anyone who is willing to do it. Given the current political climate, it’s hard to find anyone who wants to engage in that process.”
Late last year, Henrico County Sheriff Mike Wade, a former chairman of the Henrico Republican Party who supported Cantor, filed to run against Brat.
But in light of the difficulty of mounting an intraparty challenge in a redrawn district at a nominating convention, Wade withdrew this month.
He instead opted to seek the GOP nod in a redrawn, Democrat-leaning 4th District. Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-4th, is running in the 2nd District, based in Virginia Beach, hoping to succeed Rep. Scott Rigell, R-2nd, who is not running for re-election.
The shift left Brat without a Republican challenger in a district Republicans have held for decades.
“Not many people yearn to be a sacrificial lamb,” said Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
“If a future redistricting substantially changes the 7th, then conditions could change. It’s also possible his most difficult election is already behind him — the primary with Eric Cantor.
Sabato said Brat became a national figure when he defeated Cantor and is one of the faces of the rising wing of the GOP.
“Just look at the two remaining, leading (GOP) White House candidates,” Sabato said. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz “aren’t from your father’s Republican Party,” Sabato said. “Dave Brat isn’t either.”
Last week, a Democrat entered the race, hoping to challenge Brat, who defeated fellow Randolph-Macon professor and author Jack Trammell in 2014.
Eileen Bedell, a lawyer who lives in the Bon Air section of Chesterfield County, says that as a small-business owner and a married mother of two, she “lives the challenges Virginians face every day, juggling the desire for economic security with devotion to family.”
Prospective congressional candidates face a March 31 filing deadline.
Meantime, Brat said he is gathering support for a bill to balance the budget in 10 years. He views his 2014 election, and the election of other Freedom Caucus members, as a sign that the country is waking up to the belief that the nation’s finances are “at a tipping point.”
“We’ve got a long way to go, even from the Republican side, but from the American people’s perspective, they are weighing in loud and clear,” he said.
The economics professor said his brief time in Congress has taught him that addressing the nation’s fiscal woes may have more to do with ethics than economics.
“Ethics trumps economics in every case,” he said. “Learning personal political philosophies and ethics — and understanding where people are and how to transform your thinking — matters more than just the numbers.
“The question is whether we have the will, the determination and the ethics to solve our problems and make the country work again.”