By Bernie Becker - 10/01/13 10:00 AM EDT
More than a quarter-century ago, Jeffrey Birnbaum was an ace reporter documenting the numerous near deaths and eventual passage of the 1986 overhaul of the tax code.
A generation later, tax reform remains a key part of Birnbaum’s professional life — though this time, his role in the debate is as an activist, not a scribe.
Now, Birnbaum is helping one of a growing number of industry coalitions pressing for Washington to scrub the tax code, as just one part of a diverse list of clients.
In July, he helped launch the Coalition for Fair Effective Tax Rates, a group spearheaded by heavyweight interest groups like the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) and the Retail Industry Leaders Association.
The former Wall Street Journal reporter told The Hill that it should be no surprise he wanted to remain involved with tax reform, given its central place in his career.
Birnbaum’s book, Showdown at Gucci Gulch, which he co-wrote with Alan Murray, remains the most prominent and extensive account of the 1986 tax reform deal, and has been read and re-read by lawmakers and aides working on a potential sequel.
“I think it’s fair to say that I’ve kind of been on the record since 1987 in favor of classic tax reform,” Birnbaum said. “Because tax reform was, in effect, one of the heroes of the book. The triumphant conclusion of the book was that tax reform became law. So it’s been a character that I’ve lived with basically for a long time, in a journalistic sense.”
“It was a great story, and I was very, very fortunate to have been given the chance to write about it back then,” Birnbaum added in a wide-ranging interview at his office at BGR, the lobbying giant started by, among others, Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor and ex-chairman of the Republican National Committee.
“It was a very important part of my career, basically, and of my life.”
Birnbaum said that there remain some similarities between his old gig as a reporter and his new role trying to help Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) push tax reform over the finish line.
Both jobs, Birnbaum said, require trying to explain very complicated aspects of the tax code to broad audiences. But he added that he’s under no illusion that his role is the same as it was in the 1980s.
“I can help reporters,” Birnbaum said, “because I still think like one. But I don’t confuse it: I am an advocate now.”
In addition to his 16 years at the Journal, Birnbaum also wrote for Time, Fortune, The Washington Post and The Washington Times in his more than three decades as a journalist. He remains an analyst for Fox News, and has written extensively about K Street and the overlap between the private sector and government.
His new role with the Coalition for Fair Effective Tax Rates also helps to illustrate both how lobbying has changed in recent decades and how advocates are pushing for what many in Washington see as a long-shot effort on tax reform.
The coalition came about, Birnbaum said, after years of discussion with top lobbyists like NFIB’s Dan Danner and Dirk Van Dongen and Jade West of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.
The group’s main goal is to magnify the role that effective tax rates — what a company or sector actually pays — play in the tax reform debate. Many small businesses, for instance, pay taxes as individuals, meaning they currently face a higher top rate than corporations.
“I wanted to work in the tax reform debate if possible,” Birnbaum said. “And if I were lucky enough to do it with people I knew and respected and on an issue that I really cared about, so much the better.”
But it’s also true that Birnbaum’s transition from a journalist who made his name covering lobbying to a public relations executive has left some in Washington a bit queasy.
For instance, New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich pointed to Birnbaum’s career switch as he skewered Washington’s revolving door in the recent book This Town.
Lobbyists, Leibovich wrote, often laugh at their ability to lure journalists, politicians or government staffers to their side. But Birnbaum’s move, according to Leibovich, was “akin to Bob Woodward joining a White House staff.”
The implication, Leibovich added, “was not only that Birnbaum was a big catch but that people ‘switch teams’ here as a matter of routine, which they do.”
In his interview, Birnbaum pushed back at that criticism, and termed his career path as sort of a natural evolution. Before he joined BGR, Birnbaum had shifted more toward editing and column writing, positions he said had already given him more of an opportunity to be an advocate.
“Washington is so self-centered in so many ways. Do you know how many people have gone from journalism to public relations in the world, generally? I think I’ve heard an estimate — it’s a gazillion,” Birnbaum said with a laugh. “People are allowed to get another job.”
Birnbaum also pointed out that he is not a registered lobbyist, though he did note that the government affairs arm of BGR was right down the hall from his downtown Washington office.
Birnbaum’s other clients at BGR Public Relations include the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the U.S. Green Building Council and the governments of India and Thailand.
With the Coalition for Fair Effective Tax Rates, Birnbaum is also working to dispel suggestions that his group and a collection of separate corporate-backed coalitions — with names like RATE, ACT and LIFT America — have different goals when it comes to tax reform.
Other coalitions have different top priorities for a rewrite of the tax code, such as lowering statutory rates for corporations or protecting offshore income for multinational companies. Those diverse concerns underscore that any successful overhaul of the tax code by nature favors some groups or industries over others.
But at the same time, RATE and the Coalition for Fair Effective Tax Rates held a unity event in recent weeks, stressing that both groups favored a comprehensive revamp of the code.
Part of Birnbaum’s role as a tax reform advocate also seems to be as a counter to the numerous skeptics doubting that Baucus and Camp can gain much traction for their tax reform efforts.
That skepticism has only grown in recent weeks, as Washington again struggles to keep the government open and to avoid a default on the United States’s debt.
“I think people misremember how obvious it now seems in retrospect that tax reform was going to pass,” Birnbaum said about the 1986 process.
“It wasn’t obvious then at all. A lot of people, then like today, thought there was no chance for such a big, complicated, controversial bill to pass,” he added. “It died many times.”