Dave Camp’s Senate Flirtation Puts Tax Reform on Ice

Nancy Cook

Need any more evidence that tax reform is the longest of long shots this fall? Well, look no further than Dave Camp’s decision to consider a run for Michigan's open Senate seat.

The move would require the chairman of the powerful House tax-writing committee to campaign for major stretches of 2014 just when any hypothetical reform package could be debated and voted on in Congress.

“He probably could wait until December to make that decision [to run],” says Ken Kies, a tax lobbyist and former chief tax counsel to the Ways and Means Committee during the last major overhaul of the tax code. “Clearly, he can’t make that decision until he’s probably concluded that tax reform can’t fly.”

The potential Senate campaign not only hints at tax reform’s slow death. It also signals enough of a shift in Camp’s thinking that tax lobbyists say it could drive other lawmakers away from reform legislation. 

It may keep House Democrats, for instance, from voting in favor of any committee markup of a tax bill this fall that Camp has promised to unveil.  Democrats would have little incentive to support Camp’s legislation if it plays into the politics of the 2014 Senate races and hurts their ability to hold the upper chamber.

Already, it’s been a rough summer for tax reform. The Senate Democratic leadership dismissed its top tax writers’ efforts to weed through the tax code’s various deductions. Senate Republican leadership told its members to ignore tax reform until both parties agreed that any overhaul not raise additional revenue.  And President Obama’s speech about corporate taxes last week put a drag on what little momentum was left when he argued that reform should raise money for  stimulus programs.

“I don’t think they know where they are headed,” says Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., a member of the Finance Committee. “Dave Camp may have some ideas. I’ve talked to enough members of the [Senate Finance] Committee to know that there is no consensus. There is no end game that looks likely at this particular moment.”

Still, none of this will stop downtown lobbyists from swarming the Hill this fall, or staying on top of the every incremental move made by the two tax-writing committees, including Camp’s. “People still think Camp will do something,” says one tax lobbyist. “Whether or not you ultimately think tax reform will happen, the fact is that there will be paper out there. You need to be part of that game.”

If Camp does run for Senate and turn his tax-reform quest into part-time work, it would mark the end of an era, of sorts. Camp has been one of Capitol Hill’s biggest tax-reform evangelists, acting as both a political strategist and a policy wonk. His committee has held more than 20 hearings on tax reform over two years and he and his staffers produced three deep-in-the-weeds policy proposals that outlined the various ways the committee could tweak taxes for international companies, small businesses, and financial products.

He also does the politics well. He formed a bond with his Democratic counterpart in the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana. The two meet regularly to talk taxes, and together they launched a national tax-reform tour with stops in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Minneapolis to build support outside of Washington.

In early May, Camp waved off talk of pursuing the Senate seat because he remained so focused on his committee work.  “We’re engaged in the day to day of moving the ball down the field,” he then told National Journal about his efforts. “If you move the ball down the field, you score a touchdown, so that’s what we’re trying to do, but obviously, it’s never easy to do something big.”

Camp’s staff now says the lawmaker’s public contemplation of a Senate seat does not change his role or his agenda.  “The chairman was always going to be on the ballot next year, and tax reform has always been his goal, so this is changes nothing,” says Sage Eastman, a senior aide to Camp.

But running for reelection in his House district and doing the statewide work needed to successfully win a Senate seat are two decidedly different things.