On the final day of the final session of his 24 years in Congress, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) released his magnum opus, the Tax Reform Act of 2014.
The 979-page bill, three years in the making, will never be enacted. But with its release, the retiring chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee secured his legacy as the man with the courage to take the first steps into one of Washington’s most treacherous political minefields.
“A lot of people said it couldn’t be done,” Camp said in a recent interview. “Obviously, I would have liked to have seen it move further.”
It wasn’t for lack of trying. From the moment he ascended to the chairmanship of the House tax-writing committee in 2011, Camp, 61, set his sights on enacting major legislation. It didn’t matter that there was a Democrat in the White House, or that tea party conservatives had yanked his own House GOP conference far to the right. Camp said he believed that tenacity, patience and old-fashioned coalition building would prevail.
He forged a close bond with his Democratic counterpart, former senator Max Baucus (Mont.), with whom he traveled the nation in support of tax reform. He formed working groups to get buy-in from his own committee members. And when House GOP leaders told him early this year that tax reform was too controversial to take to the House floor in an election year, Camp released the details of his plan anyway, drawing widespread praise for its seriousness and ambition.
“He set the parameters for what a good tax reform bill would be,” said Bob Packwood, the Oregon Republican who pushed through the last major overhaul of the tax code in 1986 as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. “If you were to start with his bill, that would be a good place to start.”
First elected to Congress in 1990 from a largely rural district in central Michigan, Camp had been working as a small-town lawyer. He said he expected to stay in Washington maybe six years. Instead, he soon found himself serving in the first Republican House in more than four decades under former speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
Republicans were fighting messy budget wars with a Democratic president. Camp saw an opportunity to make policy, leading a brief revolt against Gingrich, who was angling to force President Clinton to veto the welfare-reform bill that Camp and others had drafted.
Gingrich sensed a political advantage for Republicans if Clinton killed the bill. But Camp believed it was more important to actually get the measure passed.
“That took three years,” Camp said. “But we didn’t give up. That’s ultimately how you do big things. And that has become one of the more successful pieces of social legislation in the last 50 years.”
Do younger, newer GOP legislators seek Camp’s advice on how to make laws?
“Not particularly,” Camp said. “For the most part, people aren’t that interested in hearing about how things used to be.”
Some of his colleagues show no inclination to try to pass laws, preferring instead to use threats to force Democratic compliance with Republican demands.
Camp has little patience with the shut-down-the-government crowd, arguing that the confrontational tactics of recent years have accomplished little while angering voters.
“When you look at the [effort to defund] Obamacare through the shutdown [in the fall of 2013], it was actually the only time that support for Obamacare got close to 50 percent,” Camp said. “We have to keep the government open and we will have to fund the government, or I think pay a very steep price for that. That is exactly the kind of thing people don’t want to see.”
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who will take over as Ways and Means chairman, said Camp will leave “big shoes to fill.”
“Among the big marks that he made, tax reform is arguably the biggest,” Ryan said. “He basically got the country and Congress thinking about it to the point where we’re now discussing not if, but when.”
Democrats, too, praised Camp as a rational actor in a sometimes chaotic party.
“He’s a level-headed guy who tried to get things done within the constraints he was facing,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “He put together a tax reform plan that — whatever you thought on the merits — it was a credible effort.”
Cathy Koch, a senior tax adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), said at a recent tax conference that Camp had performed a service by showing that tax reform “could be done.”
Equally important, he showed that it would require political fortitude, she said. “There’s not a pony in this for everyone.”