The 20 Most Powerful Women Staffers on Capitol Hill

Janice Mays: The Tax Guru Who Guides House Democrats

Janice Mays is the democratic staff director for the House Ways and Means Committee.
National Journal
May 20, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

Janice Mays is one of Cap­it­ol Hill’s most power­ful be­hind-the-scenes poli­cy­makers—and a pi­on­eer among wo­men staffers in the House. But her de­mean­or is far from the hard-char­ging, ca­reer-climber ste­reo­type so of­ten per­petu­ated in Wash­ing­ton. After 40 years in the cor­ridors of Con­gress, she still greets every­one as “sweetie” in her cheer­ful South Geor­gia drawl. She speaks ideal­ist­ic­ally of the House and the people it rep­res­ents.

And in all her time on the Hill, she has ac­quired a secret weapon she swears by: candy.

“I tend to spend most of my day here put­ting out fires as they hap­pen,” Mays, 63, says. “I pur­pose­fully have candy jars in my of­fice, so most of my staff will come through at some point in the day. So I will get to catch up, and there’s al­ways something go­ing on in every area.”

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Mays is the staff dir­ect­or and chief coun­sel for Demo­crats on the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, the pan­el with jur­is­dic­tion over taxes, trade, So­cial Se­cur­ity, and sev­er­al oth­er fed­er­al pro­grams. She’s been with the com­mit­tee since 1975, when she took a job hand­ling tax policy after she fin­ished up law school at the Uni­versity of Geor­gia.

Though she wasn’t the policy ex­pert then that she is now, she says op­por­tun­it­ies aboun­ded back then for am­bi­tious young people.

“My tim­ing was very good in the sense that it was after Wa­ter­gate and doors were open­ing and jobs were plen­ti­ful,” she says. (Demo­crats picked up 49 House seats in the cycle fol­low­ing the Wa­ter­gate scan­dal, which in turn cre­ated even more jobs at the staff level). It didn’t take her long to find a job that fit.

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“I found very quickly I have a good gut,” Mays says. “I have a good in­stinct for ra­tion­al things. That helped me more than any par­tic­u­lar ex­pert­ise.”

In the years since then, Mays has be­come the go-to ad­viser for Demo­crats on the com­mit­tee—work­ing for five chair­men and rank­ing mem­bers.

“She em­bod­ies the com­bin­a­tions that are ideal in every ma­jor staff per­son,” says Rep. Sandy Lev­in of Michigan, the cur­rent rank­ing mem­ber. “That is in­tel­li­gence, ded­ic­a­tion, a sense of talk­ing to people. She’s ab­so­lutely su­perb. She has her eyes open, her ears open and a bril­liant mind. “… She’s a ma­jor pres­ence. People will go to her for ad­vice.”

While she’s had her hand in scores of land­mark bills dur­ing her ten­ure (she counts the Tax Re­form Act of 1986 as her biggest ac­com­plish­ment; she also was in­volved in So­cial Se­cur­ity re­forms in 1983 and 1984 that made the pro­gram more fisc­ally solvent), Mays be­comes most an­im­ated when talk­ing about the people she’s had the chance to work with.

“It’s the closest to work­ing with fam­ily as you’ll ever get,” she says. “I still love it. I hate that the world is in­ured to Con­gress and only sees the bad. People are here try­ing to make people’s lives bet­ter, and I think that’s gen­er­ally true on both sides of the aisle.”

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Asked to name her fa­vor­ite com­mit­tee head over the years, she of­fers praise for all of them, in­clud­ing Reps. Dan Ros­ten­kowski of Illinois and Charles Ran­gel of New York, both of whom came un­der eth­ics scan­dals dur­ing their ten­ures atop the pan­el. Just as those ex­per­i­ences have failed to cloud her view of Con­gress, Mays also of­fers few com­plaints about the in­dig­nit­ies she dealt with as one of a few fe­male staffers dur­ing her early years on the com­mit­tee.

“The staff boss at the time did not pay me as well as the men,” she says. “He did not be­lieve I needed it, be­cause I did not have a fam­ily to keep at home.”

But she quickly fol­lowed that by not­ing the op­por­tun­it­ies she had to jump in­to mean­ing­ful work. “The work was al­ways there to be done. You had no less of it be­cause you were a wo­man,” she says. “I was an equal. It was more good than bad.”

Mays was one of the early mem­bers of the Tax Co­ali­tion, a group of fe­male tax pro­fes­sion­als who had been ex­cluded from the down­town Wash­ing­ton break­fast groups or­gan­ized by their male col­leagues. “Wo­men de­cided to form their own group and began to net­work,” she says. “We ad­ap­ted.”

While Wash­ing­ton has changed for the bet­ter in many re­spects, Mays has seen it be­come more par­tis­an and less col­legi­al. But if that has made her more of a real­ist (Cap­it­ol Hill vet­er­ans, she says, are all “naysay­ers” be­cause dozens of fail­ures have giv­en them a good sense of what doesn’t work), it has yet to turn her in­to a cyn­ic. For that, she cred­its Lev­in.

“He’s full of en­ergy and full of ideas and is pretty amaz­ing. He of­ten has more en­ergy than I have,” she says of the man two dec­ades her seni­or. “He re­fuses to be cyn­ic­al and re­fuses to think you can’t make a dif­fer­ence, even in the minor­ity.”

That at­ti­tude, Mays says, makes it easy to want to come in­to the of­fice—as well as the en­ergy of the young people on her staff.

“It is a won­der­ful place for a young per­son be­cause you are thrown in­to the fray im­me­di­ately,” she says. “You are re­spons­ible for stuff im­me­di­ately.”

Mays re­called her own early time in Con­gress, when she ex­pec­ted to stay on the Hill for about two years, nev­er know­ing it would be­come her vo­ca­tion. “People can come and make a dif­fer­ence, and if you want to come and work for your gov­ern­ment, it is a high call­ing,” she says.

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