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On Capitol Hill, Ways and Means staff director wields rare power

By Mary Ann Akers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2010; A15

If you ask congressional insiders to name the most powerful woman on Capitol Hill, surprisingly, they don't all say Nancy Pelosi. Another name immediately comes to mind, one that few people outside the inner sanctums of the House know: Janice Mays, longtime staff director of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Mays is the most powerful woman in Congress you've never heard of. Just don't tell her that.

"I don't think I have any power at all," says Mays, 58. "I think that when you forget that you're staff here is when you get in big trouble." (She reluctantly agreed to an interview but declined to sit for a photograph.)

For nearly 35 years, despite scandals that have toppled a disproportionate number of the committee's chairmen, Mays has stayed trouble-free, helping to write scores of major tax bills that have become law. She was hired in 1975 in the aftermath of Chairman Wilbur Mills's boozy splash with stripper Fanne Foxe, and her bosses have included former congressman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), who was convicted and imprisoned on federal corruption charges, and Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), whose ethics troubles forced him to give up the committee gavel this year.

"I happen to love those people," Mays says of Rostenkowski and Rangel. "I think in both of these cases there's no venal attempt to do bad things, to take money away from taxpayers."

Unless you happened to see the framed photos of Mays with lawmakers and Presidents Carter, Reagan, H.W. Bush and Clinton -- even Cuba's Fidel Castro -- you'd never know from a casual chat with her what power she wields. Mays's Southern-accented greetings end in "sweetie," and she's got an infectious laugh and an understated appearance.

Tax lobbyists, of course, know that Mays can answer their prayers from her perch as staff director and chief counsel, quietly steering the course of the House Democrats' tax policy.

"They fall at her feet," says one senior House Democratic leadership aide. (To which Mays exclaims, "Oh, don't I wish.")

Charles M. Brain, a lobbyist who worked on the committee with Mays during the Rostenkowski era, says his colleagues in the industry worship her, partly because she's such a straight shooter. "She'll tell people what she thinks is going to happen. So you can get an answer from her," he says.

Says Mays: "I actually believe that the lobby community serves a good purpose. I believe people have a right to petition their government."

Lawmakers also depend on Mays.

"With the possible exception of James Madison, Janice knows more about how the Ways and Means Committee functions than anyone I know," says Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), who privately has expressed interest in becoming chairman of the committee if Rangel isn't exonerated. "The members depend on her advice and judgment every day. The public may not know her, but she is a genuine legend on Capitol Hill."

Mays says she has no plans to retire and -- although she won't rule it out -- doesn't plan on becoming a lobbyist. She has stayed on the Hill while others, such as Brain, have left for more lucrative jobs in the private sector. She doesn't feel any financial pressure to pursue more than her $172,000 salary. Mays is single -- "I probably gave too much to the job when I was young" -- with no children, and no "super-huge mortgages" to pay.

"I believe in government. I believe government can help people," she says. "And being in a position here to help people has been very special."

This profile is the first installment of "The Juice," a regular feature showcasing influential players behind the scenes in Washington.

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