Nebraska policy wonk makes pitch for top Ways and Means slot
While Rep. Adrian Smith brings experience and policy chops, his competitors have won more buzz in the race so far
This is the first in a series of profiles on the three Republicans running for their party's top position on the House Ways and Means Committee.
Rep. Adrian Smith, a low-key Republican now in his eighth term, is attracting the spotlight with a run for the top GOP spot on the House Ways and Means Committee, with its expansive jurisdiction over tax policy, trade, Medicare and more.
Smith for years has quietly toiled on economic policies that hit home in his rural Nebraska district, like opening up foreign markets to his state’s top exports, including beef, soybeans and corn.
In an interview in his Capitol Hill office, Smith said he’ll bring that behind-the-scenes operator approach to the Ways and Means job if colleagues elect him, while talking up the need to strengthen bonds among lawmakers.
“I think we need to have more casual gatherings among members on the committee, for example, and even beyond the committee, but just to have casual discussions on, how are things in other districts, what are the commonalities,” Smith said while discussing his tax priorities. “I know that there’s far more commonality across our country than is often perceived among the American people, even, but especially as it relates to information that leaves Washington.”
With Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, retiring at the end of the year, a three-way race to succeed him is heating up as Republicans make their final push to take control of the House after the midterms.
Brady, like several of his Republican colleagues, declined to discuss the candidates’ individual merits. He emphasized the party’s deep bench of talent. The choice is ultimately up to the House Republican Steering Committee, where leadership gets the most votes but other party representatives have a say too.
Smith is known for a keen policy mind displayed during his dozen years on Ways and Means. Only Florida GOP Rep. Vern Buchanan, who’s also in the race, has racked up as many years on the panel. Missouri’s Jason Smith, the current Budget Committee ranking member, is the third announced contender.
While Adrian Smith brings experience and policy chops, his competitors have won more buzz in the race so far, and they’ve touted bigger fundraising hauls to boost Republicans’ chances. Still, Smith has contributed more than $1.3 million in cash to candidates and committees this cycle, including $340,000 in the third quarter alone, according to an aide.
His biggest single financial backer is Nebraska Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, whose father founded what’s now known as TD Ameritrade, an online stockbroker. Ricketts — whose term is up after this year and is a potential candidate to replace Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., if appointed by the next governor — donated more than $266,000 to a joint fundraising committee that Smith established earlier this year for his own accounts as well as the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Other major donors to Smith’s fundraising vehicles this cycle include Price Harding, chairman of a headhunting firm and trustee of the conservative Heritage Foundation, and executives of Tenaska, a large Omaha-based energy company.
Smith’s largest career financial backers include the Club for Growth, an advocacy group favoring low taxes and limited government, and agricultural interests like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.org.
‘Sticks to his knitting’
While Smith is considered a long shot by some, those watching the race believe it could turn anyone’s way when the House GOP Steering Committee meets formally to cast their votes.
Smith said that his sprawling district, which encompasses the bulk of Nebraska, and his background as an educator-turned-state legislator prepares him to be a productive Ways and Means leader. He welcomed his image as the wonk of the bunch.
“My colleagues keep telling me that I’m the policy guy of the three candidates in the race,” he said. “I embrace that, and I’m happy to talk policy, you know, in relatable terms.”
John Maddux, a longtime friend and backer, said in a telephone interview that he views Smith as a workhorse, driven by policy beliefs rather than ego.
“He sticks to his knitting, and he doesn’t do a lot of flashy kind of stuff,” said Maddux, who runs a Nebraska ranching business, Maddux Cattle Company.
Maddux added that Smith has a genuine desire to get along with people and believes he would avoid a harsh, partisan style atop Ways and Means. He recalled hearing Smith tell stories of playing cards with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle while they traveled together.
Smith, whose voting record has aligned almost entirely with his party for over a decade, outlined priorities for Ways and Means that fall in line with top Republican aims, with a collaborative vision of how to work toward them.
He cited making all of Republicans’ 2017 tax cuts permanent as his first priority. Major provisions lapse after 2025, including lower individual income tax rates, a bigger standard deduction, a boost to the child tax credit and 20 percent deduction for owners of “pass-through” businesses that pay taxes on their individual returns, a popular method among smaller businesses. Several business tax breaks expire sooner, including an already-lapsed research and development incentive.
“Right now more than ever, we need a tax code that encourages more productivity,” Smith said.
On how he’d approach the 2025 cliff, Smith pointed to former Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., assembling bipartisan working groups to draft tax code overhaul recommendations during his tenure and urged more informal conversations among committee members.
The next Republican Ways and Means leader will also confront two looming issues that would likely require backing from both parties to address: Social Security and the debt limit.
Smith said he’d aim to address Social Security’s insolvency, projected to hit in about a decade, as soon as possible.
He suggested the solution could be an option proposed by Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole to create a bipartisan, bicameral commission that would propose a slate of changes shoring up the Social Security trust funds.
Smith added that lawmakers should pursue more policies in line with bipartisan legislation that aims to get Americans to save more, noting that Social Security alone doesn’t offer a very comfortable retirement.
Debt limit nears
The statutory limit on U.S. government borrowing is expected to come up more quickly.
The Bipartisan Policy Center currently estimates the Treasury will run out of borrowing room as soon as the third quarter of 2023, after which it will have to start cutting back on some federal financial obligations. That could have a disastrous impact on the Treasury bond market and put benefit payments ranging from Social Security to military salaries at risk.
Smith said he’d immediately seek a timeline on the debt ceiling from Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen in January and pursue regular updates from the administration. He framed it as an opportunity for bipartisan conversations on mandatory spending, offering as an example Medicare programs that allow more choice along with government savings.
Trade hits home with Smith, who represents a major agricultural district. In his office, commodity prices for corn, soybeans, wheat and more were scrawled on a white board in black and red marker, a list updated daily for staff and visitors that reflects how Smith himself checks prices every day, according to an aide.
Currently the Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee’s top Republican, Smith said lawmakers need to address trade promotion authority, which expired last year. TPA enables the administration to ink free-trade pacts that can’t be amended or filibustered in Congress but outlines negotiating terms for the U.S. Trade Representative's office.
He added that he’d pick up where the Trump administration left off on trade, citing momentum toward a trade agreement with Kenya and need for more enforcement of trade rules when it comes to China and Japan, along with a focus on market access abroad.
“Over time, we’ve given so much access to our markets — far more than other countries have given us,” he said. “So we need to level that playing field.”
Smith had harsh words for the Biden administration on some tax and trade decisions, saying the administration has had a “reactive posture” in its trade enforcement approach and describing efforts to negotiate a global minimum tax on corporations’ earnings as dangerous.
Smith expressed more interest in working with both sides of the aisle on how to deal with the child tax credit, which becomes much less generous after 2025 absent congressional action.
Democrats are pressing to revive their 2021 child credit expansion, which lapsed in January. While Smith criticized Democrats’ lack of work requirements and monthly payout, he said he’s willing to hear out Democrats and Republicans who favor broadening the benefit beyond what the GOP added in their 2017 law.
“It’s probably what we don’t do enough of around this place, whether it’s across the aisle on one side of the Capitol or across both aisles on both sides of the Capitol,” Smith said. “I think it’s important we encourage more discussion.”