If a politician wants the limelight, being Speaker of the House fulfills that wish. If having real power and influence over the lives of Americans is the goal, chairing the Ways and Means Committee is as good as it gets.
That’s why it was so hard for Paul Ryan (R-WI) to relinquish the chair of Ways and Means to succeed John Boehner as House Speaker late last week—especially since he passed up a chance to run for president next year.
At Ways and Means, the youthful Wisconsin Republican and former House Budget Committee chair hoped to preside over an historic overhaul of the federal tax law and help reshape the nation’s economy and health care system.
But events intervened, and Ryan reluctantly agreed to succeed Boehner, to help restore calm to a chamber reeling from political chaos and division.
Much attention will be given in the coming months to how the 45-year-old Ryan goes about fixing what he has described as a “broken,” dysfunctional House and placating a band of roughly 40 right wing conservatives who forced Boehner into an early retirement.
But an equally intriguing question is whether Ryan will actually give up control of Ways and Means and grant his successor as chair a wide berth in pursuing tax reform. Or will he largely dictate the terms of any package from the Speaker’s office?
The Ways and Means Committee is the oldest and arguably the most powerful and prestigious committee in Congress. It’s backed by a constitutional amendment that mandates Ways and Means as the chief tax writing committee of Congress and requires all bills raising revenue originate in the House from that committee.
Ways and Means wields huge power over the nation’s taxpayers, businesses, philanthropic organizations and scores of other interests. Besides raising revenues, presiding over the tax code, the panel has jurisdiction over tariffs, reciprocal trade agreements, Social Security, Medicare and the U.S. debt.
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Ryan has long made it clear that he wanted a strong hand in overhauling the tax code -- for the past ten months he has worked behind the scenes for major new tax legislation after the election. He has repeatedly described chairing Ways and Means as his “dream job,” one that he found far more alluring than the daily grind of the speakership.
One of Ryan’s pledges in taking the gavel as Speaker is that he would return the House to “regular order,” meaning granting committee chairs and rank and file members greater latitude in drafting and amending major legislation.
Even so, Ryan is certain to have a big say in who succeeds him at committee. Whoever that turns out to be will have to accept the fact that he will be getting plenty of guidance and advice from the Speaker’s Office.
Right now, it is coming down to a two-man race between Republicans who are far from household names: Kevin Brady of Texas and Pat Tiberi of Ohio, veteran lawmakers and tax experts with similar, engaging personalities but different philosophical outlooks on tax policy. Brady is considered the front-runner, for no other reason than he has more seniority than Tiberi. But as a word of caution, Ryan – the Republicans’ 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee -- leap-frogged over the more senior Brady to claim the committee chair a year ago.
Here are brief sketches of the two rivals:
Kevin Brady, 60, a one-time Texas chamber of commerce official was first elected to the House in 1996. He parlayed his expertise on trade to garner a seat on the Ways and Means Committee and later to head the Joint Economic Committee. He currently chairs the Ways and Means health subcommittee.
Brady is typically conservative on economic and tax matters, but he’s not doctrinaire and would be open to others’ advice on tax reform and other issues.
He gained a reputation for being more of a pragmatist than many of his Texas GOP colleagues. More recently, one of his main targets has been attacking the Affordable Care Act.
One strike against him is that he has a relatively weak fundraising record, which may have been a factor in his loss to Ryan last year, according to Politico. He enjoys close ties with House GOP Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), his roommate in Washington, and Brady can count on substantial support from the Texas delegation, which is the largest in the House GOP Conference.
Pat Tiberi, 53, a former realtor and congressional staff assistant, is an Ohio moderate with close ties to Boehner and the business community who has shown an occasional willingness to work with Democrats.
Tiberi succeeded his former boss, John Kasich in the House in 2000; since then, he has largely toed the conservative line. However, he has occasionally broken with his party over on funding for National Public Radio, science research and renewable energy projects.
Tiberi, who chairs the Select Revenue Subcommittee, is an expert on business tax issues and advocates expanding expensing provisions of the tax code – something that has made him a favorite of the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.
Tiberi was closely allied with former Ways and Means Committee Chair Dave Camp (R-MI) and worked with him on a tax reform package that never made it out of committee before Camp retired from Congress.
Tiberi may be too moderate for some House conservatives. But he has regularly raised more than $3 million in every election cycle since 2010, nearly doubling the House average at least twice during that period, according to Politico.