Meet the chairmen legislating Biden's economic agenda

Meet the chairmen legislating Biden's economic agenda
© Greg Nash

Just hours after President BidenJoe BidenUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Biden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan Biden to tap law professor who wants to 'end banking as we know it' as OCC chief: reports MORE announced a bipartisan infrastructure deal, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenBiden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan Manchin: Biden told moderates to pitch price tag for reconciliation bill Biden employs flurry of meetings to unite warring factions MORE (D-Ore.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard NealRichard Edmund NealDemocrats confront 'Rubik's cube on steroids' Biden pushes back at Democrats on taxes Want a clean energy future? Look to the tax code MORE (D-Mass.) were meeting with two of the administration’s top economic policy officials.

The closed-door meeting in the Capitol on Thursday with the two chairmen of Congress’s tax-writing committees, Treasury Secretary Janet YellenJanet Louise YellenSenate confirms Biden nominee for top Treasury tax position The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden meets with lawmakers amid domestic agenda panic Trump: GOP would be 'foolish' not to use debt ceiling in negotiations MORE and White House economic adviser Brian DeeseBrian DeeseDemocrats seek to cool simmering tensions On The Money — Yellen sounds alarm on national default Biden officials raise concerns about rising meat prices MORE was scheduled prior to Biden’s announcement but nonetheless underscored the significant role Wyden and Neal will play in crafting legislation based on the president’s economic proposals, particularly the portions focused on how to pay for new spending.

Both chairmen are longtime members of Congress and keenly aware of the opportunity to put their stamp on major pieces of legislation aimed at bolstering the economy amid the coronavirus recession and strengthening the social safety net.

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“The country has gone through this gut-wrenching year. A time unlike any other. And now there’s just enormous challenges in front of us,” Wyden said in a recent interview with The Hill.

Neal, in an interview last week, said, “I certainly think that the committee members are eager to take on this challenge.”

Democrats are currently taking a two-track approach to furthering Biden’s economic agenda.

They are planning to pursue bipartisan legislation based on the framework that Biden announced last week with a group of senators who would be focused on transportation, water infrastructure and broadband and would be paid for through means other than tax increases. They are also planning a Democratic-only package focused on issues such as child care, education and extending tax credits for low- and middle-income households that is likely to be financed through tax increases on wealthy individuals and corporations.

The House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee will have jurisdiction over portions of both packages.

A key challenge facing Wyden and Neal is developing proposals to raise revenue that can get broad support among Democrats, who hold razor-thin majorities in both chambers. Republicans, meanwhile, aren’t expected to back any tax hikes on the wealthy or corporations.

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Neal said not only is he cognizant of Democrats’ slim majority, but that he’s also keeping in mind that in Washington it’s sometimes easier for lawmakers to vote against bills, rather than for them.

“I think that the argument is not about perfection at this time,” he said. “It’s about seizing the moment and getting something substantial done.”

Still, some Democrats have raised concerns about some of the tax increases Biden proposed earlier this year, including his proposals to raise the corporate tax rate to 28 percent and tax capital gains at death.

Democrats also have to figure out how they want to address the $10,000 cap on the state and local tax deduction. Many Democrats from high-tax states such as New York, New Jersey and California want to see the cap repealed, while some progressives say that full repeal of the cap would benefit wealthy households.

“You can find members of goodwill who believe very strongly both ways,” Neal said.

Wyden and Neal both said they’re attentive to the fact that they will need to come up with legislation that progressives and moderates alike can support. Wyden pointed to the international tax framework he released in April with Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSenate Democrats seeking information from SPACs, questioning 'misaligned incentives' Senate advances Biden consumer bureau pick after panel logjam Centrist state lawmaker enters Ohio GOP Senate primary MORE (D-Ohio), a progressive, and Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerDemocrats confront 'Rubik's cube on steroids' Advocates call on top Democrats for 0B in housing investments Democrats draw red lines in spending fight MORE (D-Va.), who is more moderate.

“Nobody thought that would be doable,” Wyden said. “And I said, look, we’re building this for 50 votes and a chance to get some Republicans. That’s sort of representative of my work.”

Wyden and Neal, both 72, will be drawing upon decades of congressional and public service experience as they work on infrastructure legislation.

But they both took different paths to Congress.

When he was younger, Wyden aspired to play in the NBA and initially attended college on a basketball scholarship. After abandoning that dream — he said he was too short at 6 feet, 4 inches and “made up for it by being slow” — he worked on advocacy issues for senior citizens.

He was first elected to the House in 1980, where he served until he was elected to the Senate in 1996. Wyden has been the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee since 2014, serving as the panel’s chairman that year and again becoming chairman this year.

Neal worked as a high school teacher and was a city council member and mayor of Springfield, Mass., before first being elected to the House in 1988. Throughout his time in Congress, he has also taught classes on politics and the media at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Neal first joined the Ways and Means Committee in 1993, and becoming the committee’s chairman was a longtime goal. He challenged then-Rep. Sander LevinSander (Sandy) Martin LevinMeet the chairmen legislating Biden's economic agenda Five House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet Here are Kamala Harris's K Street connections MORE (D-Mich.) for the ranking member position on the panel in 2010 and won the vote of House Democrats’ steering committee but then lost to Levin, who had more seniority, in the vote of the full House Democratic caucus.

Neal became ranking member of the committee in 2017, after Levin stepped down from the role. In 2019, he ascended to chairman after Democrats won back the House.

Those familiar with Wyden and Neal’s work say their extensive experience in Congress will serve them well as they work to pass infrastructure legislation.

“I think they have the potential to be a very historic pair of chairmen,” said Todd Metcalf, a former aide to Wyden who is now a principal in tax policy services practice at PwC.

Neal and Wyden have a number of similarities. They both have long been interested in infrastructure as a legislative issue, and the chairmen have a history of wanting to work on major issues on a bipartisan basis whenever possible. Compared to some of their colleagues in Congress, the two lawmakers are more focused on policy gains than on being in the spotlight or on cable news.

But they also have some key differences. Wyden is generally viewed more favorably by progressives than Neal, who faced a prominent primary challenge from the left in 2020. And while Wyden has released papers outlining some of his thoughts about how to increase taxes on the wealthy and overhaul the international tax system, Neal has gone out of his way to avoid providing specifics about how he wants to raise revenue to pay for Biden’s proposals.

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“I’ve been pretty careful about asking committee members, as well as the caucus, not to deal in, No. 1, absolutes, they can’t be for this, they can’t be for that,” Neal said. “And then secondly, not to volunteer revenue until Ron, Janet Yellen and myself try to agree at least upon the parameters.”

The two chairmen and former House colleagues speak fondly of each other.

“I knew Ron very well from his days in the House. And I think we share many of the same views about sustainable growth, certainly on the renewable side. And I think open markets are important to us,” Neal said. “It’s always been a very cordial relationship. He’s really a very, very decent guy.”

Wyden said that he and Neal look for chances to catch up with each other and that their aides are constantly in communication with each other.

“We’re very much aware of what each other is doing,” Wyden said.