In GOP Retirements, Some See an Omen

As the Ways and Means exodus continues, observers wonder what it means for tax overhaul

Rep. Dave Reichert, shown here in 2015, is one of seven Republicans on the powerful Ways and Means Committee who have announced they will leave Congress or retire. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Dave Reichert, shown here in 2015, is one of seven Republicans on the powerful Ways and Means Committee who have announced they will leave Congress or retire. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 23, 2017 at 5:01am

The departure of key Ways and Means Republicans could be a sign of diminished optimism for major legislative achievements, but some GOP observers say it may actually signal confidence about getting a landmark tax bill signed into law.

Six Republicans on the powerful committee with broad sway over taxes, health care and trade are running for higher office or planning to retire at the end of this term while the GOP is at the height of its power in Washington.

And a seventh, Rep. Pat Tiberi of Ohio, announced last week he will resign by early next year, giving up not only a coveted committee seat but the gavel of the Health subcommittee as President Donald Trump and the GOP try to dismantle the 2010 health care law.

“While I have not yet determined a final resignation date, I will be leaving Congress by January 31, 2018,” Tiberi said Thursday in a statement. “I have been presented with an opportunity to lead the Ohio Business Roundtable that will allow me to continue to work on public policy issues impacting Ohioans while also spending more time with my family.”

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It’s unclear if Republicans will fulfill their decades-long desire to overhaul the tax code by then, though Speaker Paul D. Ryan has vowed to finish by the end of this year. There’s added pressure for Republicans to come through on taxes after their embarrassing defeat on health care, especially with the 2018 midterms bearing down on them.

A victory on taxes would go a long way toward getting Republicans their legislative mojo back, satisfying disgruntled voters and donors and soothing intraparty tensions.

The Senate took a significant step Thursday night by advancing the fiscal 2018 budget resolution, the procedural tool key to passing a tax bill without the need for any Democratic buy-in. Adopting changes backed by House leaders, the Senate eliminated the need for a formal conference and likely expedited a final agreement on the budget framework and instructions for the subsequent tax legislation. That agreement could come as early as this week.

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Tax timeline

The spate of retirements by Republicans known as pragmatic legislators, like Tiberi or fellow Ways and Means member Dave Reichert of Washington, is seen by many political observers to be the result of toxic partisanship and deep dysfunction on Capitol Hill. Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a senior House appropriator, even cited the chaos in Congress as a reason for leaving.

The Ways and Means departures have stood out both for their sheer number and because the tax-writing panel has long been one of the most coveted committees in Congress.

But former GOP committee members and aides said they believe the tax writers headed for the exits may be departing less because they fear a tax overhaul won’t get done and more because they’re confident it will.

“My instinct is that Tiberi and others are probably calculating their decisions based on the probability that tax reform in some form is going to go through,” said former GOP Rep. Phil English, a senior government relations adviser with the law firm Arent Fox.

“My sense is that Tiberi, who knows history, knows that once a tax reform bill passes there’s relatively little opportunity for tax activity after the fact,” English said in an interview. “That would create a good opportunity for him to make the transition then over to the Ohio manufacturers.” 

Another onetime Ways and Means member, former Republican Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, said he texted with Tiberi on Thursday and thinks the Ohioan is hoping the tax debate will be completed by the time he gives up his seat.

“What I think he has said, in both the [announcement] and in private text conversations with me, is he is not resigning right away. His hope is it’ll be the end of January, and by that time, hopefully tax legislation has been passed,” said Reynolds, now a senior policy adviser at Holland and Knight.

Other GOP aides and insiders with connections to panel Republicans said it’s unlikely any of the departing members were influenced by fear of failure on taxes. They suggested other factors for Tiberi’s move in particular, like his desire to spend more time with his children, or his 2015 loss to Texas Rep. Kevin Brady in the Ways and Means chairmanship race, which left him without a way to immediately move up in the House.

Brady could be entrenched as chairman for one or two more terms if House Republicans remain in the majority. House GOP rules limit committee chairs to three terms wielding the gavel, and Brady is in his first full term as chairman.

Tiberi is now chairman of the Health subcommittee, which played a small role in the first major GOP legislative push of the year. He had his feet in several camps as a subcommittee leader, someone tied loosely to GOP leadership, and as an influential member among centrist Republicans, some of whom were skeptical of the repeal bill.

A spokeswoman for Tiberi did not respond to questions about whether the tax overhaul timeline was a factor in his resignation decision.

‘Sacred temple’

It’s not just Tiberi and Reichert calling it quits. Other Ways and Means GOP members who have said they are leaving Congress include Rep. Sam Johnson of Texas, who will retire after 13 full House terms, and Lynn Jenkins of Kansas, who is returning to the private sector after this term ends. Three panel members — James B. Renacci of Ohio, Diane Black of Tennessee and Kristi Noem of South Dakota — are running for governor in their states.

“Many are just the normal attrition of Congress,” Reynolds said of those departures.

English, on the other hand, sees the tax overhaul as a potential factor in some cases, like Jenkins’. A certified public accountant and former state treasurer, Jenkins is a self-described “tax, budget and economics geek” who spearheaded GOP efforts to make permanent certain business tax breaks, like those for research and development, and to expand tax benefits for so-called 529 college savings plans.

“I think she is going to play a very important role on tax reform and then be seen as a tax policy leader outside of Congress,” English said.

In Reichert’s case, by contrast, the dreary outlook for trade policy could have been a good reason for the Trade Subcommittee chairman to leave Congress, English said. Trump rode an anti-trade wave to the White House and has vowed to amend or rip up several major multilateral trade deals, while Reichert represents a district with an economy that relies heavily on exports.

“I think that increasingly, the Republicans on Ways and Means — which has always been a sacred temple of free trade — are probably trying to reassess where they are headed, given that the current Republican administration seems to have a very different take on a variety of issues,” English said.

Starting the retirement clock could possibly even have a motivating effect for some of the departing Republicans.

Pat Tiberi has been on that committee a long time. He has the same dreams of trying to get the comprehensive reform that anybody else who has served on the committee does, so he’s got an opportunity” to get it done before leaving, Reynolds said.

“There’s a pretty tough schedule to get there, but the optimism is still there,” he added.