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Search for Joint Taxation Chief Narrows

As the House and Senate prepare to deal with President Bush’s proposed stimulus bill, Congress’ two top tax writers are still searching for someone to fill one of the most important staff jobs on the Hill.

With Lindy Paull set to leave her post as the chief of staff on the Joint Taxation Committee in mid-February, Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) and Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have begun vetting candidates to replace her. Sources said the list has been narrowed to just a handful of names.

While the joint panel usually maintains a low profile, it plays a decisive role in tax debates, as it provides official estimates for the costs of any tax bill. “It is the key tax policy position at the staff level in the entire Congress,” said Kenneth Kies, a former holder of the position.

Several observers of the process said that the universe of economists who have the necessary skills and temperament to do the job is relatively small, with one estimating there were fewer than 20 people in Washington who could do it well.

Before settling on a candidate, Thomas and Grassley have had to decide whose “turn” it is to fill the tax post. Traditionally, the House and Senate chairmen have alternated in choosing the joint panel’s chief of staff. As the Senate chose last time — Paull was the Finance staff director under then-Chairman Bill Roth (R-Del.) before moving to joint tax in 1998 — Thomas believes it should be his turn.

But because the House technically chose the two chiefs of staff before Paull, Grassley argues that he should get to choose, though he said he would work with Thomas on the choice.

“I would take the position that it’s the Senate’s turn, but I get along with Chairman Thomas so well that it shouldn’t be a problem,” Grassley said last week.

Whatever the Iowa Senator thinks, sources suggested that while Thomas is consulting Grassley, he has clearly taken the lead in filling the position.

One thing both men seem to agree on is the importance of picking someone who believes in the use of dynamic scoring, a controversial method that factors in the potential stimulative effects of a tax cut in estimating the cut’s overall cost.

“We will be satisfied that [a chief of staff candidate] will be heading in that direction, but we’re not going to have a public debate about it,” said Grassley, adding that the two chairmen would “definitely” ask candidates their views on the issue during the interview process.

Republicans have argued that the current static scoring method consistently overestimates the costs of tax cuts, while Democrats claim that dynamic scoring is too imprecise and would just serve to make tax cuts sound cheaper than they really are.

A Thomas aide said there would be no “litmus test” on dynamic scoring, but that the chairman was pleased the joint tax panel would begin providing a dynamic score as part of a comprehensive macroeconomic analysis that would also provide a traditional static score.

In order to boost the joint panel’s ability to conduct such analyses, Thomas has asked appropriators to include a $400,000 increase in the panel’s budget in the fiscal 2003 omnibus spending bill.

Republicans’ choice of a chief of staff who supports the use of dynamic scoring would follow their selection of a new Congressional Budget Office Director, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who favors the method, to replace former Director Dan Crippen, who was skeptical of it.

While Democrats are resigned to the idea that the CBO and the committee will use the dynamic method, they predict it won’t help the GOP sell tax cuts any more effectively.

“We suspect that essentially the dynamic scoring will be used as a propaganda tool by the Republicans, but we don’t expect that it will have much credibility,” said Dan Maffei, spokesman for Ways and Means Democrats.

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