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.' "
"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."
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."
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."