Speculation on Ways and Means Chairmanship Grows as Campaign Cash Flows

By Marc Heller  

If the road to the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee is paved with campaign cash, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) may be in the passing lane.

Nunes, chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade, has given $715,000 of his own campaign money to the National Republican Congressional Committee since June 2012, dwarfing the contributions of the presumed front-runners for the position, Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Kevin Brady (R-Texas).

Nunes's generosity, reflected in reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, may or may not indicate an interest in the tax-writing committee's top slot, which would become available if Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) steps aside as required by House Republican term limits or in case he runs for and wins the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Nunes, a long shot according to lobbyists who follow the committee, has not said publicly whether he is interested, a spokesman told BNA.

The potential contest for the chairmanship--assuming Republicans maintain their majority in 2014--has big implications for tax legislation, as lobbyists and lawmakers increasingly suggest comprehensive tax reform will not take final form in 2013 or possibly even in the current Congress. The next chairman will inherit it.

The situation is less murky in the Senate Finance Committee, where Chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is retiring in 2014. There, seniority is a greater factor and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a vigorous supporter of tax reform, is next in line.

Campaign fund-raising prowess is not the only consideration--seniority, good relations with leadership, loyalty on the issues, and general likability all play into decisions on who leads committees.

A contest in Ways and Means is not guaranteed; if Ryan appears the clear favorite, others might step aside rather than compete. Camp, if he remains in the House, could ask the Republican leadership for a waiver to let him hold on to the chairmanship; Ryan already used that approach to retain the Budget Committee chairmanship in 2013 (220 DTR N-2, 11/15/12).

“I think folks are definitely beginning to look at it,” a lobbyist for business interests told BNA, adding that business groups would prefer to see tax reform completed before chairmanships change hands.

Several Factors at Play

Campaign fund-raising prowess is not the only consideration--seniority, good relations with leadership, loyalty on the issues, and general likability all play into decisions on who leads committees. But money has gained prominence since the Republicans moved away from seniority as the main determinant under former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (207 DTR J-1, 10/27/08).

Camp stood out as a prolific fund-raiser when he bypassed the more senior Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.) in 2008 to take the top Republican slot.

Lobbyists who work with the committee told BNA they still think Ryan remains the favorite because of his national stature, his mastery of spending and tax issues, and his enthusiasm for reform. But Brady is well-liked and, while conservative, is seen as someone who can credibly reach out to Democrats, lobbyists said.

Brady, first elected to Congress in 1996, also outranks Ryan, elected in 1998, in seniority. They each trail Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), elected in 1991, but Johnson, 82, has been passed over in prior years for the top Republican post.

Brady may also benefit from his decision to switch from the Subcommittee on Trade to the Subcommittee on Health, which broadens his expertise, one tax lobbyist told BNA. The move also puts Brady in the spotlight on the health reform law, a key issue for the Republican leadership.

Lawmakers Heap Funds on Committees

The fund-raising profile lines up with Nunes contributing $565,000 from his campaign to NRCC in 2012, plus $150,000 so far in 2013. His leadership political action committee, New PAC, gave $30,000 to NRCC in 2012, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), which tracks campaign finance issues. NRCC's mission is to help Republicans win House seats.

Nunes also contributed about $15,000 to individual Republican congressional candidates in 2012.

Ryan, running for vice president in 2012, gave $110,000 from his congressional campaign to NRCC in that election cycle, and none so far in 2013, CRP reported. But his leadership PAC, called Prosperity PAC, gave $45,000 to NRCC, $30,000 to the Republican National Committee, and $15,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2012.

Brady, who does not have a leadership PAC, gave $150,000 of his campaign cash to NRCC in 2012, as well as about $30,000 to individual Republican congressional candidates, according to CRP.

Johnson contributed about $103,000 in campaign cash to NRCC in 2012, and slightly more than $101,000 to individual Republican House candidates, CRP reported. He has given $16,600 to NRCC from his campaign so far in 2013.

Contributions from senior lawmakers to NRCC are not unusual, as the leadership instructs committee and subcommittee chairman--particularly those in noncompetitive races of their own--to make them.

Lobbyists: No Change in Approach

Lobbyists and policy analysts told BNA they do not expect much policy difference among the potential candidates for the Ways and Means chairmanship. Brady and Ryan are both quite conservative and supportive of comprehensive tax reform, said Curtis Dubay, senior tax policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

“They're all headed in the same direction on tax policy,” Dubay told BNA. “I think they're all going to be driving for tax reform.”

A lobbyist who works for business groups told BNA, “That's part of being a Republican on the tax committee. I think any Republican you can imagine would be on board.”

In the current Congress, Brady has introduced bills exempting certain stock of real estate investment trusts from the tax on foreign investment (H.R. 2870) and repealing the estate tax (H.R. 2429).

Ryan has not introduced any tax bills referred to Ways and Means.

Nunes has introduced tax-related bills dealing with public employee pensions (H.R. 1628), welfare benefits for Indian tribes (H.R. 3043), and encouraging agricultural research (H.R. 2671).

The competition for committee chairmanships plays out in the House Republican Steering Committee, a panel that includes committee chairmen and others favored by the leadership. While the panel's composition is something of a mystery--a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) declined to divulge membership to BNA--Ryan mentioned his own membership in a 2012 interview with the Naples Daily News in Florida.

The Steering Committee typically interviews candidates and decides whom to recommend; the House Republican membership makes the final decision.