Max and Dave are Washington's newest power couple on tax reform
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Welcome to the "Max and Dave Show," a campaign-style swing around the country featuring two of the most powerful members of Congress rallying support for their effort to overhaul the nation's tax laws -- and, just maybe, change the way Washington works.
Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, and Rep. Dave Camp, a Republican from Michigan, are Washington's newest power couple -- and an odd one during these politically deadlocked days in Washington. They are lawmakers from different states, different parties and they're a decade in age apart. Yet, Camp and Baucus are developing a close friendship as they try to rally other lawmakers to their cause.
Their secret: Burgers, beer and a culture of working toward public policy answers that Americans seem to want in Washington -- even when there's no solution in sight.
"Dave's my buddy," Baucus told a gathering of workers at 3M, the Minnesota-based maker of everything from Scotch tape to electronic touch screens. "My comrade."
These days, you don't often hear Democrats talk that way about Republicans, or see campaign-style events for a topic as dry as tax reform. But the pair have a common goal for an overhaul they believe is long overdue. And tax policy, to them, is exciting for all that is wrong and could be improved about it. So beginning last week in Minnesota, Baucus and Camp began barnstorming the country, employing a similar burgers-and-beer strategy that's worked for them with colleagues in Washington.
"You have to have some basis to deal with each other to work together," Camp said in an interview. "What we're trying to do is create that foundation so that we are going to be able to work together on a very important bill that could have profound beneficial effects for the country."
At issue is a tax system that many inside and outside of Congress say is too complicated for individuals and too onerous for businesses. The broad goal of tax reform is to simplify the code by eliminating or reducing tax breaks and using the additional revenue to lower tax rates for everyone.
Lawmakers in both political parties are convinced that simpler, easier-to-understand tax laws would spur economic activity. One problem is that many of the biggest tax breaks, including those for owning a home or contributing to retirement plans, are very popular.
And there are significant differences among Democrats and Republicans over how much tax revenue the government should raise and who should pay it. Democrats generally want reform to generate more revenue; most Republicans in Congress are opposed to raising taxes.
Camp and Baucus also are working in a toxic partisan environment in Washington that makes it difficult for Congress to pass routine legislation, let alone a monumental package like tax reform.
"I don't see how we get anywhere, candidly," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who is up for re-election in Kentucky next year.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wasn't much more optimistic. "We're a long way from getting something on paper as to what we're going to go forward on," Reid said.
Still, Baucus and Camp are pressing forward.
Camp, 60, grew up in Midland, Mich., and was first elected to the House in 1990. A close ally of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Camp chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, which has authority over tax laws.
Its Senate counterpart is the Finance Committee, chaired by the 71-year-old Baucus. For him, it's legacy time. Baucus grew up on a ranch near Helena, Mont., was elected to the Senate in 1978 and has become an independent voice generally more conservative than many of his Democratic colleagues. He's announced plans to retire next year, and tax reform would be his swan song.
Face time is key to the effort in Washington and beyond.
The Montana senator says he is on track to meet individually with every member of the Senate by the end of the month. Camp is trying to forge bipartisan relationships on the Ways and Means Committee by pairing small groups of Republicans and Democrats to develop options for addressing different parts of the tax law.
Every few weeks, Baucus and Camp invite about a dozen lawmakers to lunch at a Capitol Hill pub, always a mix of Democrats and Republicans, senators and House members.
Camp and Baucus have dubbed their lunches "burgers and beer," and the location -- a pub called Kelly's Irish Times -- has historic significance. Former Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., is credited with helping to rescue the 1986 tax reform package with a plan he devised over two pitchers of beer at the pub. At the time, Packwood was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, a position now held by Baucus.
"Part of it is, we've been so polarized in this town, this Congress for so many years, many of us don't know each other," Baucus said. "A burger and beers makes a lot more sense to me than a fancy dinner."
Camp and Baucus have held two lunches so far. The latest was Tuesday, and Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kansas, was there. She said Camp and Baucus are setting a good example for other lawmakers.
"There was a time when members of Congress moved their families to Washington, and they got to know each other. Their kids went to school together, they went to church together, they socialized together," Jenkins said. "We don't do that anymore. Our constituents demand that we be in church with them on Sunday."
Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., was at the lunch, too.
"It's when preparation meets opportunity that something can happen, and that preparation just happens to coincide with knowing your colleagues," Larson said. "And knowing them not like, 'Hey, let's go out and have a beer.' I'm talking about knowing them in terms of going through what the issues are."
Camp says he is committed to passing a tax reform bill out of the Ways and Means Committee by the end of the year. There is no guarantee the full House would vote on a bill. But Boehner has signaled his support for the effort by reserving the prestigious bill number HR 1 for a tax overhaul measure.
In the Senate, Baucus is teaming with Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, to write a new tax code, almost from scratch. Instead of trying to figure out which tax breaks to scrap, Baucus and Hatch are starting with a blank slate and inviting other senators to make the case for restoring various deductions, credits and exemptions.
In a question-and-answer session with 3M workers, Fred Palensky, the company's chief technology officer, hit on a theme that Baucus and Camp will have to deal with.
Palensky said he has met with members of Congress in the past and, on an individual basis, they seem like reasonable, sensible people. What happens to them when they get together back in Washington? Palensky asked Camp and Baucus.
"We're trying to break, frankly, the Washington method of operation," Baucus said. "Most people in the country want us to work together. Not the Washington way, which is gridlock, but the American way, which is work together and get things done."