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‘Firebrand’ Missourian shakes up Ways and Means race

Describing himself as a working-class hillbilly, Rep. Jason Smith seeks to jump from his post as ranking Republican on the Budget Committee

Missouri Rep. Jason Smith, seen in his office on Sept. 28, says his Budget Committee work has prepared him to take the helm for Ways and Means Republicans.
Missouri Rep. Jason Smith, seen in his office on Sept. 28, says his Budget Committee work has prepared him to take the helm for Ways and Means Republicans. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

This is the second in a series of profiles on the three Republicans running for their party’s top position on the House Ways and Means Committee. Part one is here.

Rep. Jason Smith invokes a populist image for the GOP as the party of the working class, vowing to ingrain that commitment in how he handles tax, trade and health care policy if he wins the top Republican spot on the House Ways and Means Committee.

To Smith, that would mean pursuing policies like a tax code that incentivizes domestic energy production, cutting the trade deficit with China and other countries, aggressive oversight of the IRS and reconsidering tax breaks for “woke corporations.”

Smith, a fifth-term lawmaker from rural Missouri, is looking to jump from his party’s top spot on the Budget panel to the powerful Ways and Means seat, bringing what the 42-year-old described as a “very expressive” style that’s included sharp criticism levied across the aisle.

“I’m a working-class, you know, hillbilly from southeast Missouri,” Smith said during an interview in his Capitol Hill office. “My heart and soul will be poured into leading this conference. And it’s not just for this conference, but it’s for America because this committee can have such a huge impact on all Americans.”

Smith jumped into the Ways and Means race after his competitors — Reps. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., and Adrian Smith, R-Neb. — were already campaigning.

But Smith made up ground fast with flashy fundraising hauls for House Republicans and his track record as the Budget Committee’s ranking member.

With Texas Rep. Kevin Brady retiring, Buchanan and Adrian Smith are next in line in seniority on the panel to become its top Republican. Intraparty relationships, fundraising and other factors like Jason Smith’s Budget panel work are keeping the race competitive. Those watching the race believe it could still go anyone’s way, with Jason Smith in strong contention.

Smith has brought in $2.6 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee so far this cycle including from his fundraising vehicles and contributions he raised directly from donors, according to an aide. He’s passed $640,000 in funds along to GOP members and candidates and campaigned in 51 congressional districts so far this cycle.

Smith’s top career donors include the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association — similar in that regard to Adrian Smith, who also represents a rural district — as well as aerospace company Boeing Co. and Missouri beermaker Anheuser-Busch, according to data compiled by Opensecrets.org.

This cycle he’s brought in big donations from firms including Ryan LLC, a large Dallas-based tax services provider; private equity titan Apollo Global Management; the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; and billionaire Ira Rennert, founder of New York-based Renco Group, a holding company with investments across a range of industries.

Working-class communicator

Smith emphasized his Budget Committee work overseeing a staff, agenda and communications as preparing him to take the helm for Ways and Means Republicans.

With Democrats in control the last two years, Smith has assembled talking points to slam their tax and spending packages, which he said have been used in both chambers after senators he’s personally in touch with sought his messaging help as well.

Smith also pointed to his ties from his time spent as House Republican Conference secretary and a yearslong habit of regularly taking small groups of colleagues out to dinner.

While many Republicans aren’t commenting publicly on their favored candidate, Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer is backing his fellow Missourian for the job. Luetkemeyer, the ranking member on House Small Business, has a vote on the Republican Steering Committee that will decide the race.

Luetkemeyer said Smith proved in his Budget Committee role that he has the leadership ability for the job. He described him as a team player for the GOP with strong communication skills and an intense work ethic that helped him get to Congress in the first place.

“To rise to the point where he has coming from the humble backgrounds that he had is a testament to his work ethic, his intelligence, his ability to work with people,” Luetkemeyer said.

In outlining his vision for Ways and Means, Smith pointed to his background growing up the son of an auto mechanic and minister and a factory assembly line worker mostly living in a single-wide trailer. He spoke of a district that’s both among the country’s poorest and deeply red.

“I share that because it is reflective of who our party is and that’s the working-class party,” he said. “And the policies of who we represent needs to be front and center at everything that we push.”

Smith’s district voted for Donald Trump by over 50 percentage points in 2020, and it’s among the poorest in the nation with median household income nearly one-third below the U.S. average, according to Census Bureau data.

Reconciliation redux?

A Trump ally, Smith’s vision for the party’s future aligns with recent comments from GOP lawmakers like Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, who argue Republicans should shed their association with corporate America and run as a party for the working class.

Smith wants to develop tax policies that would promote U.S. supply chains and, in particular, domestic production of energy, food and medical supplies. He said making pieces of Republicans’ 2017 tax law permanent would go hand-in-hand with those aims.

He cited a tax incentive for businesses buying tangible assets like equipment or machinery, a bigger child tax credit and 20 percent deduction for owners of “pass-through” businesses, a structure small businesses prefer.

As those provisions and many others from the law — including lower individual income tax rates — expire after 2025, Smith said he’s pitched an idea to House Republican leadership of using the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process to make some pieces permanent.

He said he’s also brought it up to the White House and studied the history of using reconciliation to pass legislation under divided government, as Republicans did in the 1990s when Democrat Bill Clinton was in the White House.

If Republicans win control of both chambers, reconciliation could give the GOP more leverage to send legislation to President Joe Biden’s desk, but they’d need his buy-in to avoid a veto.

As a start, Smith said he’ll hold public hearings to decide what parts of the 2017 law worked, and he isn’t wedded to extending everything.

“We do not need to rest with the satisfaction that every provision was a success,” he said. “We need to look at everything because status quo doesn’t work. The people who elect us don’t accept it and I won’t accept that.”

Smith’s views on trade in some ways echo Trump’s, arguing for a more protectionist approach than traditional GOP orthodoxy espouses. In that Smith might find some common ground with Biden, who’s been slow to unwind some of Trump’s tough tactics including higher tariffs on Chinese imports.

Smith is known for his no-holds-barred partisan attacks when he goes up against Democrats in committee and floor debates. He said Ways and Means under his leadership would perform “aggressive oversight” of the IRS including targeting taxpayer information leaks and an influx of $80 billion for the agency from Democrats.

Smith also listed the need to promote innovation in health care, investigate the Biden administration’s effort to negotiate global tax agreements and assess tax breaks for “woke corporations” as oversight priorities.

Republicans have increasingly targeted big companies that were once closer allies, as companies have become more active in opposing laws that restrict abortion and LGBTQ rights — and in holding back donations from lawmakers like Smith who questioned the 2020 election results.

Debt limit

Several items will be on the agenda regardless of who wins the Ways and Means contest. The debt limit could in particular turn into a face-off. The Bipartisan Policy Center currently estimates the Treasury will run out of borrowing room as soon as the third quarter of 2023.

Smith pointed to a July 2021 letter he led with Budget Committee Republicans, urging congressional leaders to rein in government spending when addressing the debt ceiling.

“It’s something that the American people expect Congress to use every tool in the toolbox to drive down this crazy spending that has led to the highest inflation in 40 years and there’s several options out there,” he said.

The clock is also running for lawmakers to address Social Security’s flagging finances, with about a decade left before the program is expected to hit insolvency. Smith emphasized the need to preserve Social Security in a bipartisan fashion but declined to detail his vision, saying he didn’t want to box in any particular path.

While Smith’s leadership in fighting Democrats’ policies has won him respect within his party, some Democrats are skeptical that he could work effectively across the aisle.

Several Ways and Means Democrats said they’d worked only with Buchanan and Adrian Smith.

“Both Vern [Buchanan] and Adrian [Smith] I think have the kind of demeanor that will maybe allow us to continue to work in a bipartisan fashion,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich. “Mr. Smith is cut from a different cloth.”

Smith responded that his purpose is to serve the Republican conference, but that he’s worked with panel Democrats and would continue to as long as the work doesn’t compromise his values.

“Do I bring a firebrand to the committee? Absolutely,” Smith said. “But I’m reflective of our party.”

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