With its high columns, golden drapery, and carved walnut rostrum, the House Ways and Means Committee hearing room is the very picture of the United States Congress.
And fittingly so. The committee, which dates back more than 200 years, is arguably the most powerful panel on Capitol Hill. There are committees with larger budgets and those with more staff. But more bills are referred to Ways and Means than to any other panel, in part because the committee has a unique mandate: The U.S. Constitution specifies that revenue bills must originate in the House—and that means at Ways and Means, the top tax-writing committee.
With only 39 members—smallish by congressional standards—a seat on Ways and Means is a rarefied assignment. Twenty-one House speakers, eight presidents, and four Supreme Court justices have served on the panel. When newcomers want to join, they typically have to wait for someone on Ways and Means from their state or region to retire, lose reelection, or die. Lawmakers then undertake a serious campaign for a seat, and the competition is legendary.
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., had a legion of New York officials—including the governor and New York City's mayor—endorsing him. Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., enlisted the assistance of former President Ford. Committee member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said, "It was harder than getting elected."
Those who make it usually don't serve on other committees, but there are spoils for those winners. Among all committees in the House, members of the Ways and Means Committee enjoy the biggest average fundraising "bonus" from political action committees at roughly $296,000 per election cycle, according to the Sunlight Foundation. By contrast, that bump is about $197,000 for members of Energy and Commerce and $46,500 for Appropriations.
But the key reason for the committee's exalted status is its broad jurisdiction, not just over all federal revenue but also over core social safety net programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and unemployment insurance. In addition, Ways and Means is in charge of international trade deals, child welfare, the U.S. debt, and, of course, tax policy.
The panel has broad influence on the economy, the distribution of wealth, and the level of government support—issues that include the building blocks of party platforms that drive many lawmakers to Congress in the first place.
"Members want to get on here for Social Security and Medicare," said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas. "But they really want it because they want to find a solution, Democrat and Republican—I guarantee you."
Yet today, those solutions are perhaps more elusive than ever before, and the committee's status as a platform to get things done is being called into question—in some cases by the very lawmakers who serve there.
In an age of divided government when lawmakers have difficulty enacting even basic legislation—Congress has yet to approve a budget—the committee's ability to directly shape policy has been seriously diminished.
Ways and Means' efforts on health care have primarily been trained on attacking the Affordable Care Act, with only moderate success. Its investigation into impropriety at the Internal Revenue Service drew headlines but has thus far failed to link the upper echelons of the administration to the scandal. Even tax reform, the committee's signature issue—and the chairman's top priority—stands as a major question mark as Congress nears the halfway point in the session.
In fact, the higher the profile of the subject, the more likely the entire Congress will want to be involved, and that elevates the odds that leadership—not the committee—will set the agenda. The encroachment of leadership is something that draws complaints from members of both parties.
"The committee lost some of the power that it had because as leadership gained more influence, they assumed some of the responsibilities of the committee," said former Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., who served as ranking member on Ways and Means.
The complaint on the Democratic side of the aisle is even louder. As Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., who is the ranking member on the Health Subcommittee, put it, "The biggest challenge to the Ways and Means Committee is to get back the power, because if you don't get the power you won't get the people to involve themselves, to actually legislate again—[and] actually look at issues."
In some ways, the leadership-driven climate eclipses the partisan rancor that is a primary barrier in other committees. Ranking member Sander Levin, D-Mich., addressed it when answering questions about his relationship with Camp.
"Is there trust between Dave and myself?" he asked rhetorically. "I think there is a trust, but it is within an environment that makes it difficult for it to operate."
Rangel is more direct: "We don't operate."
That's not to say that the committee does not work hard or set forward ideas that influence leadership's decisions.
"A lot of what we have done at the committee level sort of guides leadership…. By extension, the members of the Ways and Means Committee have a strong stamp on how policy is being brought forward," said Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., the panel's Oversight Subcommittee chairman. But he added that the committee does not have the autonomy most members would like to exercise. "I would like to see it get back to regular order so to speak, where the committees are doing the work and are front and center. But we are not in that environment right now."
Camp enjoys a close relationship with Republican leadership, which benefits him and the panel. He was in the same freshman class as Speaker John Boehner. He sometimes bikes with Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who relies on him as a crucial player for rounding up votes and having his pulse on the conference as a member of his whip team.
Indeed, Camp is viewed as a detail-oriented, reliable, and traditional Republican, who appreciates the challenging dynamics of the fractured GOP Conference. As Ways and Means chairman since Republicans took back the House in 2010, Camp is seen as a leader whom leadership can count on to put forward shrewd, if safe, ideas that Republicans can get behind, without pushing the envelope too far.
"Dave is certainly in the inner circle," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the Energy and Commerce Committee chairman. "We have our elected leadership, and Dave is right there as one they count on for ideas and support."
Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who serves on Ways and Means, describes the committee's role this way: "The way it works is, leadership provides a general framework and Ways and Means provides the details."
He cites the Republican search for savings on entitlement spending that will be part of the two-chamber budget conference that is kicking off. Leadership will look to Ways and Means to provide the expertise, he said.
"Ways and Means produces in so many ways the intellectual basis for those policies," Ryan said. "Ways and Means has the chief jurisdiction of these entitlements. It usually produces a lot of the big answers and raw research needed to do these things."
Inside the House Ways and Means Committee
But that's not necessarily a starring role, and there is much to support the assertion that Ways and Means now functions largely as an arm of the Republican leadership, rather than as a major power center in its own right.
One example is the debt ceiling, which was raised earlier this month after a massive political battle and 16-day government shutdown. The Ways and Means Committee held hearings on the issue and offered such ideas as debt prioritization earlier this year, intended to give leadership as many tools as possible. But the committee is not the place where decisions are made about the House's posture on the matter, nor does it pretend to be.
Camp was involved in conversations behind the scenes, and well he should be. Camp served on the Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction commission and the ill-fated super committee. He was one of the Republicans Boehner brought to the White House to meet with President Obama on the stalemate. "Dave Camp is at the table because of the input he provides and the knowledge that he has," McCarthy said. "We need that."
But Camp kept a noticeably low profile on the debt ceiling, content to allow leadership to take the lead.
"There's just not a lot of political interest in really doing anything with the debt limit other than using it as a hostage, and if that's the case that is a decision that is being made above the committee," said Alex Brill, a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and a former policy director and chief economist for Ways and Means Republicans. "Sure they are providing technical help on that issue, but technically it's not that complicated."
Another example of a situation in which Ways and Means has taken a backseat to leadership is revenue bills. Despite its unique status in Congress, the committee has not produced a meaningful revenue bill all year. That's not because it is incapable. Rather, the committee is following a GOP strategy to starve the Democrat-controlled Senate. If the House doesn't send any tax bills over, then Senate Democrats will have trouble finding a vehicle for their tax priorities.
This from the committee that produced the landmark 1986 tax reform, the 1996 welfare reform, the NAFTA trade agreement, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, the Bush tax cuts—even Obamacare.
Indeed, the fight against the Affordable Care Act is another example. Ways and Means has dutifully tracked leadership's direction, dedicating time and energy to the early repeal movement and to more recent efforts to scrutinize implementation. But without consensus among Republicans, the committee is hardly leading the charge. "Part of our challenge is that everyone wants to eat that elephant from a different direction," Brady said.
For his part, Camp argues that there's no point in looking back on days when the committee had more autonomy. "You know, times change," he said. "You live in the time you have, and I don't spend a lot of time thinking about what was. I just see it as you have to deal with the environment you have."
But a look back puts the fundamental power shift taking place in relief.
Former Chairman Wilbur Mills, D-Ark., who ran the panel from 1959 to 1975, was the lead voice in deciding committee assignments for the entire Democratic caucus, because his post at Ways and Means automatically made him chairman of the party's Committee on Committees, the precursor to today's Steering and Policy Committee. This gave him enormous power to trade committee assignments for votes. His chairmanship ended after a couple of damaging drunken public incidents with a stripper called Fanne Foxe.
Former Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D‑Ill., who ran the panel from 1981 to 1994, enjoyed strong centralized power, built on a Chicago-style system of carrots and sticks in which he could push bills through on proxy votes without the press—or even many of his members—in the room (proxy voting was later eliminated). His tenure ended ingloriously amid scandal, eventually resulting in a prison sentence for mail fraud.
Some say the Republican victory in 1994, which swept out 40 years of Democratic control in the House and ushered in Newt Gingrich as speaker, was the first sign of erosion of the committee's power. Gingrich inserted leadership more heavily into the committee's business, and Chairman Bill Archer's agenda was largely set for him by the GOP's Contract With America.
"When Bill Archer became chairman, Newt became speaker and was a very aggressive speaker, and moved to influence committee products and committee decisions sometimes, so that was a change," McCrery said.
Former Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., who led from 2001 to 2007, was a very forceful and productive chairman, who led through intimidation. But he had the assistance of a Republican administration, leeway from leadership, and a Congress that was more eager to legislate than it is today. All of that helped shuttle bills through.
Rangel, his successor as chair, openly laments that then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi controlled his gavel, especially when the Affordable Care Act came through the committee. "It was so bad that chairmen, including me, knew that the direction was set by the leadership and members could complain, but having their views known was about the maximum input that committee members had," he said. "Clearly we couldn't work our will on the Affordable Care Act."
Republicans argue that Boehner, as a former committee chairman, has sought to hand some of the power back, but it is clear the committee agenda moves in close concert with leadership's objectives.
FIGHT OF HIS LIFE
Perhaps the biggest test remaining for the committee will be tax reform, which is the committee's driving force under Camp, and an initiative he elevated on the GOP agenda. Indeed, Camp has had success selling himself as an ideas man in what some Democrats call "the party of no."
When it was clear that the massive stimulus bill of a newly elected President Obama was hurtling ahead in early 2009, Camp teamed up on a GOP alternative with then-Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va. The legislation—largely tax cuts—was billed as creating twice the jobs at half the cost and was the Republican answer to the Great Recession. It didn't go anywhere, but it gave Republicans a counterproposal to rally around. Fast-forward to the contentious health care debate later that year, and Camp took a similar approach. He drafted and offered a replacement proposal, which he still boasts was the only alternative scored by the Congressional Budget Office that would have lowered premiums.
Under Camp's stewardship, the committee has pushed into enactment three long-stalled free-trade agreements, with Panama, South Korea, and Colombia. Although most of the committee's work to kill Obamacare has been blocked by the Democratic-controlled Senate, Camp did manage to usher through a repeal of the health care law's 1099 tax-reporting requirement. He led last year's payroll-tax negotiations for leadership in a conference with the Senate and has tasked the committee with finding solutions on entitlement reforms. The committee as a whole is active, and all of the subcommittees are busy carrying out the chairman's priorities. (On Ways and Means, unlike some other committees, the subcommittees' staffs work for the chairman, too.)
"Camp wants to solve problems," said Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio. "It's not just a perch to give speeches from. He wants to be for something, to change something, to do something."
But tax reform is a feat that has not been achieved since 1986, and most critics don't see it happening now. The divided Congress and the gridlock that has ensued have resulted in an agenda more about crisis management than incubating dramatic, big-picture reforms.
So Camp is fully engulfed in the fight of his life to rewrite the tax code before his term as chairman ends at the end of next year. Camp's answer to these challenges has been to conduct legislative spadework on a scale that is rarely seen in Congress anymore. He has conducted dozens of hearings and briefings and met one-on-one with more than 80 members, including every member of the panel from both parties. It is part of an educational outreach campaign designed to tackle members' inexperience dealing with tax law.
It's a tall order given the fact that almost half of the GOP Conference has been in office four years or less and almost 60 percent of the entire Congress has been there less than eight years. Of the 23 Republicans on Ways and Means, only six have served on the panel for at least six years.
Camp is playing a two-way game. He has adopted an open-door policy on tax reform, listening to a wide range of input, including meetings with Democrats (he refrains from criticizing Levin, knowing he'll need to work with his counterpart). At the same time, he has positioned himself as an extension of leadership, maintaining close ties with them, implementing their will, and gaining the latitude to develop the product on tax reform in return.
"We'll have to make the case that we have the political space to do this and then subsequently make the case for the package that we will present," said Boustany. "We are filling in polling detail to show the members that yes, this will be a big endeavor; there is some political risk in it; but at the same time it's necessary and the American people want it."
With Republicans and Democrats heading into a budget conference, tax reform is likely to be part of the conversation, if not the action. Ryan credits Camp with inserting the parameters for tax reform into the last three GOP budgets. The chairman is determined to move a bill out of his committee this year, but whether it advances is ultimately up to Boehner and Cantor. Boehner has at least been willing to support the task publicly. He reserved H.R. 1—the symbolic first bill of the session—for tax reform.
"Tax reform is going to be our biggest issue," Camp said. "I mean, we have not done it in 30 years, so that is going to be our biggest challenge."
This article appears in the October 24, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as Key Panel in Less-Than-Golden Era.