Republicans vow to restore clout of Ways and Means panel

House Republicans are vowing to restore the prominence of the Ways and Means Committee after its clout was diminished amid a protracted ethics investigation of former Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.).

Under new Republican leadership, lawmakers expect the House Ways and Means Committee to get back on track and reestablish the panel's power by holding hearings, conducting oversight and crafting legislation on a broad range of issues, including a federal tax code overhaul, completing pending free trade agreements and repealing provisions of the healthcare law.

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The controversy surrounding Rangel, who spent the better part of the past three years under investigation, led then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to consolidate Ways and Means policymaking and legislative power into her office. Pelosi and her aides played leading roles in crafting legislation that fell under the purview of many committees, but none more so than Ways and Means.

The Energy and Commerce took the lead on healthcare reform legislation, led by Pelosi confidant Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). Ways and Means and Energy Commerce share jurisdiction on Medicare, which has led to major turf battles for well more than a decade under both Democratic and Republican majorities. But in the last Congress, Ways and Means was no match for the energy panel.

"That's going to change under [Ways and Means Chairman] Dave Camp [R-Mich.] because he's going to be a very strong leader and under [Speaker] John Boehner [R-Ohio[ because he respects the expertise of the committee," said panel member Kevin Brady (R-Texas), third in line in seniority on the panel behind Camp. "I see jurisdiction being restored and defended very strongly and very aggressively."

Boehner has promised to return the House to regular order and cede power back the the committee chairmen to move legislation through the lower chamber.

Meanwhile, Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) isn't hesitating to load up the panel's calendar with hearings on several major topics including tax reform, trade and the healthcare law.

"Once you lose jurisdiction to the Speaker's office or another committee you have to fight to get it back," Brady said.

Camp's strong relationship with House leadership and other committee chairmen should help in the reestablishment of the panel's power, he said.

"You're going to see the lights go back on," Brady said. "We should be in the middle of it all."

Former Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), who led the panel from 2001-2006, said it's clear that Republicans have filled the committee with members well-connected to leadership and in positions of growing responsibility in the House, a key to moving legislation forward.

Thomas also praised the addition of several "sharp" freshmen who he said should contribute to the panel.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) had previously held a position on the committee before becoming leader and is expected to play a major role in moving Ways and Means bills to the floor.

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is a senior member of Ways and Means who can go deep into the weeds of Medicare and tax policies.

The panel's lineup also includes Rep. Peter Roskam, (R-Ill.), chief deputy whip who ranks fourth among Republican leaders, Brady, a deputy whip who also serves on the Joint Economic Committee and is chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade, and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), chairman of the Republican Policy Committee.

Roskam will work closely with Republican Whip Kevin McCarty (Calif.), who took over Thomas' seat when he left Congress.

Former Rep. Tom Reynolds, a Republican from New York who also was a member of Ways and Means, said Boehner's doctrine as Speaker is very clear that he's going back to regular order and do the "work of the House," with the committees and subcommittee being the workhorses of legislation.

Like Brady, he expects a lot of hearings and oversight.

Camp has come up through the ranks and is "very knowledgeable" on the jurisdiction of the committee and he will be a "very powerful" chairman working with subcommittee leaders and other members, potentially building bipartisan alliances, Reynolds said.

Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.), first in line to lead the committee, said he's confident that Boehner will allow House committees to return to "business as it used to be done" by pushing legislation through panels.

"We're going to be very, very busy in committee," he said.

Rangel waited 35 years to take the helm of the tax-writing panel after rising quickly to power on Capitol Hill following his 1970 election due to his political skills, fundraising ability, genial manner and ability to make deals and form alliances. In 2007, he was one of the most powerful members on Capitol Hill, offering what became known as the "mother of all tax bills." That reputation, however, started to fade in 2008 as allegations arose of personal financial and political fundraising misconduct.

Rangel led the panel until stepping down in spring 2010 for what he said would be a temporary break after he was found guilty of a more minor infraction related to accepting corporate-financed travel.

In November, he was found guilty Tuesday of breaking 11 House rules related to his personal finances and his fundraising efforts for a New York college, eliminating any chance he'd lead the committee as chairman or ranking member, again.

Completion of the comprehensive tax bill in the lame-duck session that extended the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts has freed up the Ways and Means agenda.

The committee this month held its first hearing on tax reform and has two more hearings planned for next week, one on the free trade agreements in negotiations with South Korea, Panama and Colombia and the other on the healthcare reform law.

Camp has said "we're going to do tax reform and it's going to ruffle some feathers."

Yet, after a tax reform hearing on Thursday, Camp told reporters not to expect a tax reform bill this year.

“We just took the first step on what I’ve said is a long journey of tax reform,” Camp said. “We want to start trying to building some consensus. And there’s a lot to do. It’s a very complicated issue, as we heard this morning.”

Tax reform has emerged early in this Congress as an issue where both parties believe some progress can be made.

"Throw in the fact that the President has signaled some receptivity to a reform discussion, along with substantial, commendable efforts on the Senate side from Ron Wyden [D-Ore.], and you have a recipe that just might lead to cooperation," said Pete Sepp, executive vice president of National Taxpayers Union.

Any major bipartisan agreements between the committee and the White House could also provide a boost for the panel, Brady said.

"We think trade could be a great potential for common ground," he said, claiming it would create jobs.

"Getting something done will provide the committee with power," he added.

But Bill Gale, an economist with the Tax Policy Center, said any movement on tax reform legislation will require compromise and there's no indication that Republicans are willing to take that step. He expects a year of fairly aggressive posturing and more legislation that won't go anywhere because it can't get through the Senate.

"At best we're a year away," he said.

But tying up loose ends at the end of the 111th Congress does provide a "window of opportunity" with any changes including a broader base and lower tax rates and focus on using all extra revenue for deficit reduction.

Another major issue the panel will address this Congress is the future of Social Security, with some Republicans calling for lifting the retirement age for the popular entitlement program.