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Senate Finance Staff — Old and New — Ready for Tax Challenge

Staffers promoted to replace departed colleagues

From left, Senate Finance majority staffers Jay Khosla, Jeff Wrase, Jen Kuskowski, Julia Lawless, Chris Armstrong, Mark Prater, and Shane Warren in the committee’s Dirksen hearing room. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
From left, Senate Finance majority staffers Jay Khosla, Jeff Wrase, Jen Kuskowski, Julia Lawless, Chris Armstrong, Mark Prater, and Shane Warren in the committee’s Dirksen hearing room. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“A little bit like Bill Belichick.”

That’s how Jay Khosla, the new staff director for the Senate Finance Committee, described the personnel management style of Chairman Orrin G. Hatch.

Which is to say that just as when star wide receiver Julian Edelman goes down with a season-ending injury, Hatch wants people ready to go when senior staffers depart for administration roles or other more lucrative jobs.

“His objective has always been to have a team of professionals that is fully functional at an optimal level regardless of who the individual personalities are,” Khosla said of the Utah Republican. “Personal office, obviously, is its own entity, and we work well with them, but just [speaking of] the Finance Committee, everyone has a deputy.”

That is a good thing when work is underway on possibly the committee’s biggest undertaking since 1986, at least when it comes to taxes.

The best known of Hatch’s committee staff is arguably Mark Prater, the deputy staff director and chief tax counsel, who will be responsible for drafting much of the nuts and bolts of the long-desired overhaul of the U.S. tax code.

[Mark Prater, the GOP’s Tax Policy ‘Kingmaker,’ Is Hunting for a Deal]

Prater, an Oregon native, has been with the committee since 1990, when another Oregonian, former Chairman Bob Packwood, was the top Republican. In addition to working on tax legislation and oversight endeavors since then, Prater also served as the staff director of the 2011 so-called supercommittee, more formally known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.

Some of the other senior staff roles have changed hands, but the staff stresses that deputies have behind-the-scenes experience.

Khosla succeeded Chris Campbell, the panel’s longtime Republican staff director who was confirmed as assistant secretary of the Treasury for financial institutions shortly before the August recess.

Khosla was formerly the policy director, first coming to the committee to work on health policy after advising Sen. John McCain on the same issues during the Arizona Republican’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign. He also previously worked for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and at the Budget Committee.

A perfect example of a deputy that the Finance Committee staff had waiting in the wings is the current trade counsel. The previous jobholder Everett Eissenstat is now at the National Economic Council.

“The person who took over, Shane Warren, was here for all of our 2015 trade agenda,” Khosla said. “The people who are replacing are very high-caliber people with lots of experience”

“Nobody here is new. They’ve all been here. It’s just these are names and faces that people just haven’t heard a whole lot about before,” he said.

Sometimes, old is new again.

Chris Armstrong came to the Finance Committee in 2015 as the top oversight counsel after having worked as oversight counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee when Republican Dave Camp of Michigan was chairman. But from 2007 to 2011, Armstrong worked for then-Finance ranking member Charles E. Grassley.

Grassley, an Iowa Republican, is known for his emphasis on oversight and investigations — and for sending a deluge of letters seeking information from federal departments and agencies within his purview.

The staff experience, as well as the connections to the current White House, will be an asset if and when the panel is called upon to actually mark up an overhaul of the tax code, as Hatch intends.

Committee staff is trying to get ready for the exercise, with hearings already underway. The next tax hearing is scheduled for Tuesday morning, when members will hear testimony about the business portions of the code from a panel of outside experts. The committee held a similar open hearing on taxes for individuals on Thursday.

Hatch is a member of the “Big Six” leaders crafting the contours of the GOP-led tax overhaul, along with House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief economic adviser Gary Cohn. The group is supposed to release principles before the end of September.

But Hatch and his senior staff say the bill itself will be written by the two tax-writing committees. That’s something the Utah Republican sought to make clear Thursday.

“I’ve heard a lot of talk about a secret tax reform bill or a comprehensive plan being written behind closed doors,” Hatch said. “True enough, leaders in the House and Senate, including myself, as well as officials from the executive branch have been discussing various proposals. But, as we stated in our joint statement before the recess — and as I have stated on numerous occasions — the tax-writing committees will be tasked with writing the bill.”

Khosla said likewise in an interview, adding that one of the lessons learned from the as-yet-unsuccessful effort to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law is that the Senate should try to get back to working the old-fashioned way, and that means hearings and markups and a committee process.

The broad jurisdiction of the Finance panel, which also covers trade policy and much of the health care debate, means there is always plenty to be done.

Just last week, without much fanfare, Hatch and Finance ranking Democrat Ron Wyden announced a five-year deal on the expiring Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“Not only does this proposal provide uninterrupted funding for CHIP, but it also provides certainty and increased flexibility for states to administer the program,” Hatch said. “We will continue to work to advance this agreement in a way that does not add to the deficit, and I am hopeful we can move forward swiftly to ensure no lapse in care for our nation’s most vulnerable children.”

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