Rep. Dave Camp has heard the word “no” before. As usual, he isn't listening.
Nearly 18 years ago, when the Republican House Ways and Means chairman was an obscure third-term congressman serving on the powerful tax-writing committee, House GOP leaders were ready to throw in the towel on welfare reform following President Clinton's second veto. But Camp wouldn't listen. The Michigander and a GOP colleague circulated a letter that collected the signatures of 100 Republican members demanding that their leaders try again. They agreed to give it another go.
After changes were made, Clinton signed welfare reform into law, enacting what is remembered as perhaps the seminal conservative achievement of the Republican-led Congress of the 1990s.
That history might explain Camp’s decision to introduce his blueprint for comprehensive tax reform in a politically charged year when almost every leader whose support the plan needs is ignoring or criticizing it. Once again, Camp isn’t listening.
“I don’t care about how comfortable it may make people — or uncomfortable,” Camp said during a breakfast with reporters. “I don’t think we can afford to wait. I’m willing to take on this issue because I think it’s something the American people are going to demand. And I would say to those who think the timing isn’t right: What is their plan for moving the economy forward?”
Camp’s plan would reduce tax rates for all income brackets and simplify the tax code. According to an analysis by Congress’ nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), the proposal would neither increase the deficit nor benefit the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. Politically, deficit and distributional neutrality were important to Camp to inoculate the plan from Democratic attacks that have suppressed support for previous Republican proposals.
The JCT projects Camp's proposal would deliver a $3.4 trillion injection into the economy and create nearly 2 million jobs. The proposal has been well received by Tea Party-aligned conservatives, but has sparked criticism among some long-time GOP supporters in the business community. That's because to make the numbers work, Camp's plan would scale back several popular exemptions that have been politically untouchable, such as the home mortgage deduction prized by voters and the housing industry.
It also would eliminate the deduction for state and local taxes, which Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called "dead on arrival."
Congressional Republicans have pursued tax reform for years. But eight months before an election in which the GOP could win control of the Senate, few want to scare away traditional supporters or provide the Democrats with policy proposals they can twist into political attacks. Some critics of Camp's plan have even accused him of treating tax reform as a vanity project to compensate for his term-limited chairmanship ending in December.
But the Republicans who worked with him on the House Ways and Means Committee to produce the tax overhaul say Camp is a strategic operator who would not have rolled out the blueprint now without a plan of action in mind. Camp has said that tax reform legislation won’t become law absent a vigorous public and legislative debate. He knows it could take a couple of years and he wants his “discussion draft” to get things moving.
“He understands the process very well, he understands the endgame very well. He’s not interested in making statements, he’s interested in making law,” said Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, a senior member of Ways and Means.
Camp, 60, was elected to Congress in 1990 after 10 years practicing law, working as a congressional aide and serving one term in the Michigan Legislature. Over his 24 years in Congress, he has compiled a reliably conservative voting record, won all of his elections handily and never faced a primary challenge as an incumbent. His colleagues describe him as well-liked, hard working and a “legislator’s legislator.”
In 2009, he authored the House Republican alternative to the legislation that became Obamacare. Democrats, who controlled Congress at the time, killed the bill. The Affordable Care Act became law in 2010, about eight months before the GOP would win back the House in a historic electoral wave.
But something else happened that year that had a lot to do with Camp's decision to pursue tax reform. In late 2010, just weeks before he became Ways and Means chairman, Camp sat in a meeting with then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and then-Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who is now the U.S. ambassador to China, to negotiate an extension of expiring tax provisions that typically have to be renewed every December.
He thought about the prospect of extending the provisions the following December and most likely every December after that. And he thought about the idea of a few people deciding in a secret meeting which policies would die and which would survive. The process struck him as counterproductive to good governance. Camp decided to use his chairmanship to push for tax reform — and an end to the annual exercise.
“This is something we need to do. We need to have this debate as a nation,” Camp said.