K Street cultivator

K Street cultivator

The joke is there for the taking, so take it Sage Eastman does.

Eastman, the longtime right-hand man to former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) who is now a lobbyist at Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen Bingel and Thomas, hails from a long line of Vermont farmers. So whenever Eastman is trying to avoid an uncomfortable conversation about politics back on the farm, he cracks: “I found a better way to make a living shoveling manure.”


“That usually gets enough of a laugh that nobody has a follow-up question on what policy is or isn’t working in Washington,” Eastman said in his corner office at Mehlman Castagnetti, decorated with, among other items, a Vermont map, a Vermont seat pillow and a bottle of Vermont maple syrup.

Eastman has been in the middle of many of Washington’s major policy battles during President Obama’s time in the Oval Office, from the passage of the Affordable Care Act and Camp’s own unsuccessful attempt to revamp the U.S. tax code to the showdowns over lifting the debt ceiling and the ill-fated supercommittee.

With Camp no longer in Congress, Eastman is now coming at many of those same issues from a different angle — and with perhaps a less barbed approach — as he settles in on K Street.

A frequent presence outside the House chamber in past years, Eastman didn’t mind throwing a few digs at Democrats as it appeared increasingly unlikely that broad bipartisan deals on taxes and entitlements would come together. Even narrower agreements on issues like a string of expiring tax breaks fell apart during Camp’s tenure, much to his aides’ chagrin.

But now, at least in part because of his new role at a prominent bipartisan lobby shop, Eastman employs a somewhat lighter touch when it comes to discussing both the issues of the day and his former Democratic sparring partners.

Even Obama, whom Republicans have long urged to be hands-on with tax reform, gets more of a pass from Eastman these days. “I’m not trying to cut the administration on this in any way,” he said, before adding that the president “wasn’t quite the broad-based champion” he could have been.

“That building,” Eastman said about the Capitol, “is filled with people trying to make a machine work that’s designed not to.”

While even his fellow Republicans gave Camp’s 2014 tax reform draft the cold shoulder, Eastman insists he has no regrets about leaving Capitol Hill when most of his former boss’s top priorities were left unfulfilled.

Camp and his allies have long suggested that the former chairman’s reform draft will influence whatever deal emerges to revamp the tax code.

Eastman also maintains that he and other former Camp aides were glad to have played their supporting role when Congress repealed Medicare’s “doc fix,” a solution that was years in the making.

“I’m not somebody who sits there and says, ‘Oh, gee, I wish I only had one more year to get this accomplished.’ We sort of left it on the field,” Eastman said. “We used our time to the fullest.”

Eastman said there are a number of good reasons he doesn’t have more regrets.

For starters, when he came to Washington, he never expected to be in a senior slot at Ways and Means. And once he did, Eastman said, he also knew that he would have to make some sort of transition at the end of 2014, when Camp was term-limited out of the top GOP slot on the powerful committee.

“From a mindset standpoint, I was ready and prepared to make a shift,” Eastman said. “Some folks in this town don’t get to do that. All of a sudden, they wake up one morning and their boss wasn’t reelected.”

A graduate of Kalamazoo College, Eastman got his start in GOP politics roughly two decades ago with then-Gov. John Engler of Michigan — now himself a K Street mainstay at the Business Roundtable. Eastman and his family had moved from Vermont to Michigan just before Eastman started high school.

After working for Engler, Eastman worked a few more campaign cycles in Michigan before moving to Washington in 2003 to work in Camp’s personal office.

It was supposed to be a short-term move, to “get the D.C. experience,” before he and his wife, who now have three children, moved elsewhere to raise a family.

But as luck would have it, the top GOP position at Ways and Means opened up after the 2008 elections, and Camp defeated a more senior Republican, then-Rep. Wally Herger (Calif.), to take the ranking member slot.

More than six years later, Eastman said his experience at Ways and Means has undoubtedly made him a better lobbyist.

He knows, for instance, how long or short of a meeting to ask for on Capitol Hill — no small gift in light of the often-crowded schedules of lawmakers and their aides.

Like other former staffers who have made the transition downtown, Eastman said he’s warming up to the more flexible schedule that comes with life on K Street.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given his farming lineage, Eastman says he wakes up between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., and congressional reporters got used to getting pre-dawn emails from him.

“There is an alarm clock,” Eastman said of his morning routine. “I have not used it. I do not know if it works.”

What he is less sure about is whether he’ll ever get the itch to return to the Capitol. “I was taught to never say what you won’t do,” he said, before discussing “the times you feel the weight of history, in a good way,” during late-night negotiations there.

In the meantime, Eastman remains close with Camp, now a senior adviser at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and other former Ways and Means aides who have departed Capitol Hill.

“We sort of poured everything into those efforts,” Eastman said about the committee’s work. “So it’s not like we walk away and go, ‘Gee, I wonder what’s on the Tennis Channel today.’ ”

As such, Eastman is reluctant to dish too much about the back-story of Camp’s tax reform work.

Camp’s efforts were written off many times, including when GOP leaders declined to endorse his reform draft and when his main partner, former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusBaucus backing Biden's 2020 bid Bottom line Overnight Defense: McCain honored in Capitol ceremony | Mattis extends border deployment | Trump to embark on four-country trip after midterms MORE (D-Mont.), went to Beijing as U.S. ambassador to China.

Still, Eastman declined to say how confident he was that tax reform would happen during Camp’s chairmanship, or when he knew they would fall short.

“I might answer this differently, if I knew Dave Camp wasn’t going to read this,” he said.