Dave Camp Campaigns for Tax Reform — and His Legacy

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Dave Camp speaks at a press conference to talk about extending the payroll tax cut for working Americans on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
Oct. 23, 2013, 4:50 p.m.

As polit­ic­al war brought Wash­ing­ton to a stand­still earli­er this month, shut­ter­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and threat­en­ing mar­ket may­hem, Ways and Means Com­mit­tee Chair­man Dave Camp stuck to his plan.

He let lead­er­ship fight the battles over de­fund­ing Obama­care and rais­ing the debt ceil­ing — two is­sues squarely with­in his com­mit­tee’s jur­is­dic­tion — while he kept his fo­cus on tax re­form.

The Michigan Re­pub­lic­an held meet­ings in the com­mit­tee’s his­tor­ic Cap­it­ol cham­ber, and car­ried on the Re­pub­lic­ans’ tra­di­tion­al Wed­nes­day lunches be­neath the House floor. He even con­tin­ued a series of din­ners, in­ten­ded to in­vest law­makers deep­er in the pro­cess, as the budget im­passe per­sisted.

“Camp stands up,” said House Ma­jor­ity Whip Kev­in Mc­Carthy, R-Cal­if., who at­ten­ded one Power­Point-laden sup­per on Oct. 9. “He brings every­body to­geth­er to come to a din­ner, and then he starts walk­ing them through policy. So, here the mem­bers are in a more com­fort­able en­vir­on­ment; they are talk­ing policy. He is listen­ing to them, able to come back with the an­swers.”

Since he took the gavel al­most three years ago, Camp has en­deavored to lay the found­a­tion for a com­plete over­haul of the tax code, something Con­gress has not done in al­most 30 years. At a time when Con­gress bounces from crisis to crisis and is seem­ingly dead­locked on fisc­al mat­ters, the pro­spects for ma­jor re­forms are grim. But Camp re­mains de­term­ined to in­tro­duce a re­form bill this year, to per­suade Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship to back it, and to ul­ti­mately hash out a com­prom­ise that will bridge a di­vided Con­gress.

If he’s suc­cess­ful — and he’s run­ning out of time as chair­man to find out — it would provide a grand leg­acy, fol­low­ing a con­gres­sion­al ca­reer colored by less high-pro­file achieve­ments. And while few would bet on Camp suc­ceed­ing, many ap­plaud the ef­fort.

Mc­Carthy called Camp’s meth­od “a for­mula to show oth­er com­mit­tee chair­men how to move a com­mit­tee.”

“When he went to go lay out tax policy, he didn’t go tell people, ‘This is it,’ ” Mc­Carthy ad­ded. “He would go lay out, ‘This is a work­ing area, here are two dif­fer­ent ideas. What’s your in­put?’ He builds con­sensus and bey­ond be­fore he even moves something.”

“AN OPEN PRO­CESS”

In­deed, Camp has de­lib­er­ately taken a more open ap­proach to lead­ing the pan­el than some of his heavy-handed pre­de­cessors.

Camp wit­nessed le­gendary Chair­man Dan Ros­ten­kowski, D-Ill., close meet­ings to the press, draft le­gis­la­tion in the con­fer­ence room, and then push it through on proxy votes. Hot-tempered Chair­man Bill Thomas, R-Cal­if., may have ar­gued he was look­ing out for his mem­bers’ in­terests, but he of­ten shut them out of the pro­cess, no­tori­ously say­ing, “I’m in pro­duc­tion, not sales.”

Camp has brought a more in­clus­ive — if no less fo­cused — style to Ways and Means, which is as much a sign of the times as it is a re­flec­tion of Camp’s mild-mannered Mid­west­ern sens­ib­il­ity and his back­ground as a law­yer.

“What you really want to do is have a pro­cess where people have an op­por­tun­ity to weigh in, and it doesn’t mean they all agree, but at least there is an open pro­cess,” Camp said. “I’ve al­ways said, ‘You don’t al­ways get your way, but you get to have a say,’ and that is a philo­sophy I’ve tried to take to the whole is­sue of tax re­form.”

He has en­gaged in an enorm­ous edu­ca­tion­al cam­paign to bring law­makers up to speed on the mad­den­ingly lengthy and com­plic­ated tax code, and that it­self is a huge chal­lenge. Hardly any­one in power was around the last time the code was over­hauled in 1986. Re­pub­lic­an mem­ber­ship on the Ways and Means Com­mit­tee has had dra­mat­ic turnover in re­cent years, and only six of its 23 Re­pub­lic­ans were on the pan­el as far back as the 110th Con­gress six years ago. The rank and file are equally new to these is­sues; nearly two in five House mem­bers have served in Con­gress for less than three years.

Camp reas­ons that a trans­par­ent pro­cess al­lows a bet­ter ex­change of ideas. The ap­proach is clearly in­ten­ded to head off op­pos­i­tion in an era where lin­ing up a Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity is no easy feat, des­pite the party’s con­trol of the House.

“I knew that this was a very big is­sue, and I thought the more know­ledge mem­bers had, the more part of the pro­cess they were, the more likely it would be that there would be buy in,” Camp said.

CALL­ING GER­ALD FORD

Camp’s polit­ic­al ca­reer was launched through his con­nec­tion to Bill Schuette, a child­hood play­mate in Mid­land, Mich., who was Camp’s pre­de­cessor in Con­gress and is now the Michigan at­tor­ney gen­er­al.

The two helped each oth­er win stu­dent-coun­cil races, and they shared secrets about the mis­chief they made at H.H. Dow High School (named after the founder of Dow Chem­ic­al, which is headquartered in Mid­land). They stayed in touch dur­ing law school, stood in each oth­er’s wed­dings, and re­turned to Mid­land to start their leg­al ca­reers.

Camp’s early work as a law­yer hand­ling child-ab­use, neg­lect, and ad­op­tion cases left a last­ing im­pres­sion. He was frus­trated with loop­holes in the law that let neg­lected chil­dren lan­guish in foster care for years without per­man­ent ad­opt­ive homes. So he later pushed changes in­to law in Con­gress that cre­ated in­cent­ives for states to ex­ped­ite ad­op­tions. Today, this body of work is among Camp’s sig­na­ture ac­com­plish­ments.

“I did a lot of so­cial-ser­vices leg­al work,” he said. “It was a real ex­per­i­ence in un­der­stand­ing people’s needs and con­cerns. That is kind of what drove me in­to it.”

But the path to be­com­ing a law­maker was not im­me­di­ate.

When Schuette ran for Con­gress, Camp served as an ad­viser and went with him to Wash­ing­ton when he won. Camp even­tu­ally left to serve one term in the Michigan House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives. When Schuette stepped down to chal­lenge Sen. Carl Lev­in, D-Mich., he en­dorsed Camp for his con­gres­sion­al seat.

Tax re­form — mainly lower­ing rates — was part of Camp’s plat­form even back then. Yet it was the prom­ise that Camp was guar­an­teed a seat on the House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee, which Schuette ar­ranged, that went a long way to se­cur­ing votes in the sprawl­ing ag­ri­cul­tur­al dis­trict where sug­ar beets flour­ish. Still, Camp was al­ways more in­ter­ested in busi­ness and tax is­sues than in ag­ri­cul­ture, and he set his sights on Ways and Means.

That was easi­er said than done. The com­mit­tee is one of the three most sought-after in the House. Be­cause lead­ers have his­tor­ic­ally tried to main­tain re­gion­al rep­res­ent­a­tion, new­comers typ­ic­ally have to wait for a mem­ber from their geo­graph­ic area to leave. Yet the com­mit­tee already had a Michigan Re­pub­lic­an.

So Camp got cre­at­ive and gen­er­ated a new map of the coun­try based on pop­u­la­tion. His map in­flated Michigan’s size and shrank rur­al states to make the case that Camp’s state de­served an­oth­er seat on the pan­el. He also ad­op­ted the long tra­di­tion of treat­ing it as in­tensely as a con­gres­sion­al cam­paign. When Camp could not per­suade a key hol­d­out to sup­port him, he took a gamble and dialed former Pres­id­ent Ford, a fel­low Michig­ander and a former House minor­ity lead­er.

“I called him in Cali­for­nia, not know­ing if he would even take the call, and his as­sist­ant answered the phone and she said hold for a minute,” Camp said. “And Pres­id­ent Ford came on and said, ‘Some­body owes me a fa­vor and I am go­ing to make a call on your be­half.’ “

It worked.

“He called some­body who was not sup­port­ing me who ended up chan­ging their vote and help­ing me, so it was a big deal,” Camp said. “And this mem­ber came up to me and said, ‘Any­body who can get Pres­id­ent Ford to call me, I’m for.’ “

Camp said he is pre­pared to go to the same lengths for his agenda. “I made the case,” he said, “just like I’m go­ing to do for tax re­form.”

100 MEET­INGS

Camp even­tu­ally won the rank­ing-mem­ber po­s­i­tion and be­came chair­man when Re­pub­lic­ans won the House in 2010. His de­but hear­ing on com­pre­hens­ive tax re­form set the stage for his agenda. Since then, Camp has con­vened more than 26 hear­ings on the sub­ject, in­clud­ing the first joint one with the Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee in 70 years. In all, he has con­duc­ted more than 100 meet­ings on the top­ic. This year Camp met in­di­vidu­ally with every mem­ber of the com­mit­tee and has sat down with every GOP fresh­man.

Camp has de­veloped a stronger bond with Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee Chair­man Max Baucus, D-Mont., than he has with rank­ing mem­ber Sander Lev­in, a fel­low Michig­ander with whom Camp has served on Ways and Means since he joined in 1993. When Con­gress is in ses­sion, Camp meets weekly with Baucus, a Demo­crat so in­clined to work with Re­pub­lic­ans that lib­er­als watch him war­ily. The two toured the coun­try to pro­mote re­form this sum­mer.

“We may not al­ways see eye-to-eye, but we share a mu­tu­al re­spect. And we share some sim­il­ar goals — in­clud­ing re­form­ing Amer­ica’s tax code,” Baucus said.

A rap­idly ap­proach­ing dead­line has ce­men­ted the pair’s re­la­tion­ship. Baucus is re­tir­ing from the Sen­ate at the end of this Con­gress in 2014, at which point Camp will have run out his six-year term lim­it for serving as chair­man.

Camp is try­ing to find a way for tax re­form to hitch a ride on the fisc­al de­bate. If he can­not, he vows to move his yet-to-be-un­veiled le­gis­la­tion out of the com­mit­tee this year. Camp’s sup­port­ers are quick to give him cred­it for ad­van­cing the dis­cus­sion — but without prom­ising it will suc­ceed.

“Tax re­form has al­ways been something that Re­pub­lic­ans have ad­voc­ated,” said Rep. Paul Ry­an, R-Wis., the Budget Com­mit­tee chair­man who is seen by many as next in line to head Ways and Means. “Dave Camp has done more to ad­vance tax re­form than any­body since 1986”¦. He is star­ing down all the naysay­ers and doubters, and mov­ing it farther than it has in dec­ades.”

But des­pite all the out­reach — in­clud­ing 11 work­ing groups, with bi­par­tis­an lead­er­ship — Camp’s pro­cess gets mixed re­views from Demo­crats.

Some busi­ness-friendly ones like com­mit­tee Reps. Ron Kind of Wis­con­sin and Richard Neal of Mas­sachu­setts, cred­it Camp for hear­ing them out. “Tax re­form is doable,” Neal said.

Still, Lev­in com­plains that Camp’s start­ing point is rev­en­ue-neut­ral tax re­form that lowers top rates for cor­por­a­tions and in­di­vidu­als to 25 per­cent, which is a non­starter for most Demo­crats. “They said, ‘We’ll agree to sit down on a bi­par­tis­an basis, only if you agree to ac­cept those three premises,’ ” Lev­in said. “That is totally un­sat­is­fact­ory.”

Rep. Jim Mc­Der­mott, D-Wash., says the situ­ation is com­plic­ated by the fact that Camp and Baucus are short-timers.

“There is no trust here,” Mc­Der­mott said. “Who is he speak­ing for? In 18 months he’s gone. Max Baucus is gone. So you have two guys who have one foot out the door talk­ing about do­ing tax re­form. I have not figured out how they think they are go­ing to ram this thing through.”

BEAT­ING CAN­CER

In Ju­ly of last year, Camp an­nounced he was bat­tling early-stage non-Hodgkin’s lymph­oma, a blood can­cer. He un­der­went chemo­ther­apy and lost his hair. His head was cold, and he felt self-con­scious see­ing him­self bald in the pages of The Wall Street Journ­al.

“He was truly shook up from the start and didn’t know if he would ne­ces­sar­ily make it,” said a long­time friend, Rep. Fred Up­ton, R-Mich., the chair­man of the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee.

“It was tough for him. He lost all of his hair and star­ted wear­ing a base­ball cap. A couple of our bald guys, like Kev­in Brady, con­fron­ted him on the floor and said, ‘What don’t you like about us? You think we are ugly?’

“With that he took it off, and it was a big change,” Up­ton said.

Camp did not miss a single vote dur­ing that time, even though he was ser­i­ously sick. Friends and col­leagues said he fo­cused on his fam­ily and kept show­ing up to work, which helped him muscle through. “You just have to get through it,” Camp said. “I got through it by ba­sic­ally pre­tend­ing I didn’t have it as much as I could.”

Camp an­nounced he was can­cer-free in Decem­ber, and he has not said what he’ll do after his chair­man­ship is fin­ished. Up­ton said Camp is push­ing harder than ever.

“I have lived my life in two-year bites for a while, but I really think you have to live the time you are in,” Camp said. “This is one where you have to make the most of every minute you are giv­en”¦. I’m really fo­cused on the time I have right now and not think­ing about what comes next.”

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