Ways and Means: A Key Panel in a Less-Than-Golden Era

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 01:  House Ways and Means Committee members (L-R) Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA), Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH), Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), Chairman David Camp (R-MI) and ranking member Rep. Sandy Levin (D-MI) question witnesses during a hearing on the Affordable Care Act in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill August 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. During the hearing titled, "The Status of the Affordable Care Act Implementation," the committee questioned representatives from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Internal Revenue Service responsible for implimenting the ACA.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
Oct. 23, 2013, 2 p.m.

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.

WAN­ING POWER

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.”

“IN­NER CIRCLE”

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.”

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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.

OPEN-DOOR POLICY

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.”

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