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Legislative Updates: February 2014

 

Capitol Call

The Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee is one of the most powerful people in Washington. The Committee, created way back in 1815, has jurisdiction over most health care issues, taxes, trade and most any legislation that raises revenue for the government. With the Appropriations Committee losing some of its luster in the post-earmark Congressional world, many believe that the Finance Committee has solidified its place as the most powerful committee in the Senate.

From his perch atop the Finance Committee, former Chairman Max Baucus (D-Montana) accomplished many goals, but his goal of comprehensively overhauling the tax code has eluded him. Though his efforts were a long shot from the beginning, former Chairman Baucus worked hard on tax reform, immersing himself in the nuances of the tax code and releasing four discussion drafts and 10 position papers on all aspects of tax reform. As his time as Chairman and Senator came to an end last week, after being confirmed by a 96-0 vote to become the next Ambassador to China, he stated in a press release that he was proud of his fight for “smart” tax reform and hopeful that his years-long collaboration with Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R- Utah) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Michigan) “will pave the way for further [tax reform] momentum in the years ahead.”

Based on his seniority on the Finance Committee, it was long pre-ordained that Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) would become Chairman once Senator Baucus became Ambassador Baucus. Senator Wyden’s ascension to Chairman set off Committee musical chairs in the Democratic Caucus, with Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana) replacing him at the helm of the Energy Committee and Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) taking over Senator Landrieu’s chairmanship of the Small Business Committee.

Senator Wyden is not well-known even among Washington insiders, so many will be watching him closely in the upcoming months to gauge his views on tax reform. We do know, however, that he has long championed Medicare reform and has a keen interest in health care issues. Last week, he outlined his tax agenda in his first policy speech as incoming Chairman. Among other issues, he wants to narrow the gap between the tax rates of investment and ordinary income and also significantly increase the standard tax deduction.

Senator Wyden is known as a low-key and thoughtful Senator. While he has a partisan voting record, voting with his party 97 percent of the time since he entered the Senate in 1996, he has worked on a bipartisan basis on many issues, including Medicare reform and NSA surveillance reform, with several Republican Senators and even House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin).

Beyond the Finance Committee, Senator Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has also been a leader on privacy issues related to national security and reforming the NSA. Along those lines, according to a 2013 article in The New Yorker, “For almost a decade, [Wyden] has been trying to force intelligence officials like [Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper to be more forthcoming about spy programs that gather information about Americans who have no connection to terrorism.” It is certain that his tenaciousness and studiousness of intelligence issues will carry over to his leadership of the Finance Committee.

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