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Buchanan touts business success in bid for Ways and Means slot

Eight-term Florida congressman would bring a traditional conservative view of economic policy to the influential committee

Rep. Vern Buchanan built a string of auto dealerships in Florida, and he headed up the state’s Chamber of Commerce. He’s now one of the wealthiest members of Congress.
Rep. Vern Buchanan built a string of auto dealerships in Florida, and he headed up the state’s Chamber of Commerce. He’s now one of the wealthiest members of Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

This is the last in a series of profiles on the three candidates for the top GOP position on House Ways and Means. Part one can be seen here; part two is here.

Rep. Vern Buchanan is pitching a sharp pro-business focus if he wins the top Republican spot on the House Ways and Means Committee, emphasizing his personal experience navigating the tax code as he grew printing and car dealership businesses.

Buchanan would bring a traditional conservative view of economic policy — opposition to tax increases, more regulations and unions “that don’t make sense” — to the influential panel overseeing taxes, trade, health care, Social Security and other major benefit programs.

“Big picture is … I want to make America the best place to do business,” Buchanan said in a telephone interview. “I’ve actually been in business and done these things and lived this tax code stuff over the years.”

In his eighth term representing a coastal South Florida district, the 71-year-old took an early lead in the race to succeed retiring Texas Rep. Kevin Brady as Republicans’ top Ways and Means member. Reps. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., and Jason Smith, R-Mo., have since jumped into the contest, and observers believe the race remains competitive.

Buchanan has the slight lead in seniority from serving on Ways and Means for a dozen years; he came in together with Adrian Smith but is technically ahead because his last name comes first in the alphabet.

Buchanan points to his experience as the top GOP member of five of Ways and Means’ six subcommittees. And he’s put up big fundraising numbers to back Republicans’ push to take control of the House.

Buchanan has raised $3.1 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee so far this cycle, his campaign said this week. He announced he’s also sent $439,000 from his fundraising vehicles directly to Republican members and candidates.

Some of Buchanan’s largest individual contributions this cycle have come from Fort Myers, Fla.-based oncologist Daniel Dosoretz and his wife, Celia. Other major recent donors include David Millstone and David Winter, co-CEOs of New York City-based Standard Industries Inc., an industrial conglomerate billing itself as the world’s largest roofing and waterproofing manufacturer, and Jeff Blau, CEO of New York City-based real estate developer Related Companies.

Buchanan’s biggest career contributors, according to OpenSecrets.org, include the Benderson family, owners of Sarasota-based real estate firm Benderson Development LLC; Florida-founded supermarket chain Publix Super Markets; retailer Bealls Inc., based in Buchanan’s district; and Juno Beach, Fla.-based Next Era Energy Inc., one of the nation’s largest electric utilities.

‘Blue-collar’ background

Buchanan grew up in the small town of Inkster, Mich., near Detroit in a “blue-collar” home where his father worked two jobs.

He went on to join the Air Force, attend college and launch his first business, American Speedy Printing, which included hundreds of franchised stores in dozens of states. Buchanan said he sold that business in the late 1980s as he moved to Florida. The printing business entered bankruptcy just after his departure, and Buchanan later settled allegations of fraud and excessive pay, according to local reports.

In Florida, Buchanan built a string of auto dealerships in Sarasota and stretching north through other states, and he headed up the state’s Chamber of Commerce. He’s now one of the wealthiest members of Congress.

At the heart of Buchanan’s campaign is an argument that he has the business background to help shape tax, trade and other policies in a way that would help small businesses and startups blossom.

Buchanan pointed to experience working with tax lawyers and accountants and choosing a business structure that determines how a firm pays taxes. He said he grasps the importance of Congress signaling a pro-business attitude to the private sector and aiding smaller firms in particular.

While many Republicans are keeping their powder dry, Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly is whipping in Buchanan’s favor. Kelly is a senior Ways and Means Republican and has a vote on the GOP Steering Committee that will decide the race to fill Brady’s spot.

Kelly, who also owns car dealerships, said private sector experience is critical to the Ways and Means job and pointed to Buchanan’s work as the top Republican on nearly all of the panel’s subcommittees through the years, most recently on health care.

Kelly said that more than a particular partisan view, Buchanan would bring the perspective of knowing the healthy way to run a business. “This guy started with absolutely nothing and has built an incredible business plan,” he said. “He has been very successful.”

Kelly added that he’d expect Buchanan to run the committee like a business, which Buchanan echoed by pledging to get buy-in from panel members and empowering them to do the work.

Like his competitors for the job, one of the top initial priorities for Buchanan would be pressing to extend elements of Republicans’ 2017 tax law that expire within the next few years. In particular, he pointed to the need to preserve full, immediate expensing of costs for buying certain assets like equipment and a 20 percent deduction for owners of “pass-through” businesses, a structure that small-business owners often prefer and Buchanan himself has used.

Buchanan’s goal would be to take up a bill — like his own to lock in many of the 2017 tax cuts, including lower individual income tax rates and a bigger standard deduction — within the first six months of next year and send it to President Joe Biden’s desk. He would essentially dare Biden to reject it.

“I’d like to think that he’s smart enough, especially if he’s ever thinking about running for another term,” Buchanan said. “Because what’s going to happen — taxes are going to go up in all of these areas, individuals, small businesses. And he’s going to be on the wrong side of that.”

One piece of the law that both Democrats and Republicans have supported, albeit in different forms, is the child tax credit. As Democrats aim to revive a more generous expansion of the credit that Republicans oppose, Buchanan said there could be room for common ground next year. He said families struggling with the cost of child care and rising housing costs need more support.

“We’ve got to find a way to provide some additional support for working families, and the child tax credit is a good place to start,” he said.

‘Not even on the field’

The Biden administration has also been negotiating global tax pacts to set a minimum rate for multinationals’ profits and strike an agreement on taxing rights, which aims to stave off foreign taxes targeting tech companies’ digital business.

Buchanan said he’s not interested in foreign countries having a hand in U.S. taxes but he wants to help businesses that operate abroad and would sit down with that community to get a sense of their needs.

On trade, Buchanan said he wants to see the administration become more active, in part given China’s engagement around the globe, including by exploring trade deals with the United Kingdom, European Union, Kenya and other potentially beneficial partners.

“We’re not even on the field; we’re up in the stands somewhere,” he said of U.S. trade policy.

Buchanan also said he’d lead aggressive oversight of Democrats’ $80 billion in funding for the IRS enacted this summer and on probing unemployment and Medicare fraud.

Buchanan said his health care focus would be on affordability and curbing costs, including by encouraging or incentivizing healthy practices like regular doctor’s visits.

If Republicans take the House in November, the statutory debt ceiling is one topic in the Ways and Means panel’s jurisdiction that could be particularly problematic. Independent estimates suggest the Treasury Department could run out of borrowing authority sometime in the second half of next year, and many Republicans are already pledging to try to extract structural changes to federal spending as concessions for their votes to lift the borrowing cap.

Buchanan noted that Republicans’ margin if they win the House would be a factor but he’d be part of a team to try to get the debt limit situation addressed in advance.

“Whatever date we end up with, I don’t want to be waiting the day before trying to get something done, so we just need to fix the overall debt,” he said. “You know, we need a balanced-budget amendment. This thing is out of control.”

That’s a policy Buchanan has proposed for years. It would block spending from exceeding revenue during each fiscal year unless Congress votes to duck the requirement in a supermajority vote, along with other tax and spending controls.

Another time-sensitive issue, the deteriorating finances of Social Security, would also be a task for Ways and Means.

Buchanan, whose district is home to many seniors, said he supports assembling an outside group of experts to shore up both Social Security and Medicare and urged quicker action with both “up against the wall.” Lawmakers and the White House adopted a similar strategy in the 1980s, creating a bipartisan commission to recommend changes to rescue Social Security’s finances.

Reaganesque vision

A millionaire himself, Buchanan’s background differs substantially from his competitors for the job.

And in contrast to Jason Smith, for instance, who evokes the working-class populism of his party’s more recent president, Donald Trump, Buchanan’s tone is more Reagan-like in focusing on government getting out of the way of wealth creation.

“That’s one of the things I’m fighting for, is to kind of restore the American dream,” he said.

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