K St.: Speaker Pelosi really holds reins of power on Ways and Means committee

K St.: Speaker Pelosi really holds reins of power on Ways and Means committee

It doesn’t matter who the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee is to K Street, because Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been the de facto power behind the panel for some time, according to lobbyists and congressional staffers.

Pelosi has had a major say on the committee’s agenda since Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) came under fire last year for several ethics controversies, these sources said.

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Most lobbyists don’t expect that to change now that Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) will serve as the acting chairman of Ways and Means.

Rangel on Wednesday said he would give up his gavel until the House ethics panel concludes its investigations of him, but given worries that ethical scandals could hurt Democrats this fall, it could be difficult for Rangel to regain his chairmanship.

John Raffaelli, founding partner of Capitol Counsel, said the panel should not change that much institutionally in the wake of the leadership change, particularly since Rangel’s staff is expected to stay put.

“I’m pretty sure Rangel’s staff will stay completely intact. They are professionals and very well-liked,” said Raffaelli.

“The big difference is in the comfort level that the people downtown have. But [there] was the same feeling when Mr. Rangel took over,” Raffaelli continued. “The fear of the unknown is always great.”

Another consistency is Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who sits on the committee and is also assistant to the Speaker. Some lobbyists say they’ve been directed to go through Van Hollen to get the Speaker’s input on issues going through the committee, something likely to continue.

“Pelosi wanted more of a say in what Ways and Means does, and the congressman helps that along,” one lobbyist said.

Van Hollen’s office recently told The Hill that the congressman’s committee role had expanded, and that he meets more frequently with Rangel to discuss policy. But aides said it was not to give Pelosi greater control over the Ways and Means agenda.

“As the assistant to the Speaker, this year, the Speaker has given him a larger policy role,” the staffer said, adding, “But as far as an enhanced role, that is not correct.”

Pelosi’s influence on the panel can be seen in its agenda, several sources argued. Rangel’s chief priority, tax reform, has been given little attention at the committee level since he came under scrutiny.

“No one expects tax reform to happen this year, but you could at least hold a couple of hearings on the subject and mark something up,” one lobbyist said.

Tax reform isn’t likely to move to the front burner with Stark, an expert on healthcare.

“This makes fundamental tax reform much less likely,” said Ralph Hellmann, senior vice president of government relations for the Information Technology Industry Council. “Congressman Rangel put a lot of constructive thought and engagement into this issue.”

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Though Pelosi is expected still to wield power behind the scenes, several other lobbyists emphasized the difference in dealing with Stark instead of Rangel.

Though Rangel proposed the “mother of all tax reforms” and represents liberal Harlem, his reputation as a dealmaker earned him respect with the business world. He also is perceived as being sensitive to business’s needs.

Stark is a different story.

He has long pushed for healthcare reform and is an ardent critic of the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries, which both have plenty of business in front of Ways and Means.

Conservative groups questioned Stark’s ability to put his partisan views aside when addressing issues like trade or tax policy.

“This is a guy who has been pretty universally for tax increases throughout his career,” said Ryan Ellis, tax policy director at the right-leaning Americans for Tax Reform.

The left-leaning Citizens for Tax Justice was more receptive. “We’re going to work with the Ways and Means Committee no matter who is in charge,” said Steve Wamhoff, a legislative director for the group.

On trade, advocates for pending free-trade agreements (FTAs) with Colombia, South Korea and Panama expect the Californian congressman to keep his anti-trade stance as chairman and resist moving forward on pacts that haven’t seen action since George W. Bush held office.

“He is not really a big fan of the FTAs,” said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, an organization that supports enactment of the pacts.

A Cabinet-level official in the Obama administration said he had not had a chance to consider how Rangel’s decision to step down temporarily will affect the pending trade deals that need congressional approval.

“I don’t know Congressman Stark as well,” said USTR Ron Kirk, who called Rangel “a good friend and a leader for many years.”

Lobbyists also question if Pelosi will be able to control Stark as effectively as she did Rangel. Stark’s cantankerous outbursts and resistance to authority are well-known on Capitol Hill.

Stark has maintained a low profile since he took to the House floor in 2007 to apologize for saying that President George W. Bush was amused by U.S. soldiers getting their heads blown off in Iraq. That’s undoubtedly helped him with the Speaker.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) advised Stark on Wednesday to tone down his comments.

“I don’t think it always serves his interest to be as outspoken as he has, but that’s up to him,” Waxman said. “If he wants to ruffle feathers, it makes it harder for him to go back to some of those people.”

Market analysts said Wednesday that they view Rangel’s departure as making it slightly easier for lawmakers to impose new taxes on financial firms based in the Caribbean. Domestic and foreign insurers have clashed over a bill sponsored by Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) that would increase the U.S. tax burden for foreign-owned firms.

“Rangel looked out for Bermuda similar to the way he looked out for Caribbean nations and opposed the Neal bill in the past and blocked it,” said Brian Gardner, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. “Him stepping down probably breathes some incremental new life into the bill.”

Gardner cautioned that House and Senate lawmakers have yet to signal how they want to proceed on the bill.

Silla Brush contributed to this article.