By Stacey Skotzko
Rep. Peter Roskam believes that a tax code overhaul, despite its prickly political connotations, could actually drive Members of varying ideological perspectives together.
"That sounds counterintuitive," the Illinois Republican said Thursday, the same day his chamber passed a tax-cut package decried by Democratic leaders and sure to hit a wall in the Senate. "But it's based on the premise that you want to get a deal done. There's nobody that can defend the status quo on the tax code. There's no voice in the public square today that can look at the totality of the tax code and say, "It's terrific. We just love this whole thing.'"
From his seat on the Ways and Means Committee, Roskam has made simplifying and improving taxes a top priority for his third term in the House. He describes the work on the panel, both on a personal level and a larger committee-wide one, as driving American competitiveness.
Roskam's suburban Illinois district, both now and after decennial redistricting, includes many white-collar professionals who commute to Chicago and its bustling suburbs. It's driven by light manufacturing, health care and transportation needs; he says he knows Illinois' more recent fiscal woes are frustrating his constituents. He has authored five bills thus far in the 112th Congress; none has had committee consideration. But they pursue familiar GOP themes: reducing Medicare and Medicaid waste, fraud and abuse; making permanent the tax rates for capital gains and dividends; and excluding payments that students get from certain work-college programs from their overall tax liability.
Another one of his bills, fitting considering the recent tax-filing deadline, would make the IRS Free File program permanent and has Democratic support. The program allows taxpayers to e-file federal returns for free. He also has used legislation to make a statement about the government's involvement in the mortgage industry. In early 2010, he introduced legislation that would effectively cap the salary of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac officers and employees during any conservatorship or receivership at the same level as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), who is on the committee with Roskam, was quick to praise his colleague: "He's smart, he's quick, he's funny, he's analytic and he's hardworking." Reichert noted that Roskam, likely using his background as an attorney, can swiftly simplify complex issues, whether legislative text or testimony from a witness. "He's very good at making the issue human and bringing it down to the ground level, where people can grab on to it," Reichert said.
Roskam can also draw on his varied résumé for his ability to relate to others. In addition to being an attorney, he has been a teacher, as well as a Member of both the Illinois House and Senate. Roskam also follows in the conservative footsteps of his predecessor and former boss on social policy and foreign policy. Like the late Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), whose name is attached to a law that has long barred federal funding of most abortions, Roskam opposes abortion. He was a legislative aide to Hyde and was also on the staff of then-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in the mid-1980s.
He is also a vocal supporter of Israel and co-chairman of the House Republican Israel Caucus: "Israel is our one friend that we can consistently count on that has a shared set of values, and we need to do those things that are necessary to make sure that the relationship is solid," he said. Working with Illinois Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski, he wants to establish a non-profit, national Korean War museum in Chicago. Roskam's father served in the Korean War.
In a nod to his optimism, Roskam does know that to get his legislative priorities done, or anything really in Congress, deadlines are key, and expiring tax provisions, such as the expiration of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts at the end of this year, or expiring funding laws, such as the surface transportation law, pose an opportunity, rather than a hindrance. "Look, legislative bodies tend to be crisis-driven institutions," he said. "I've experienced that in the state House and in the state Senate. It's the way these institutions are made up. That is it. Say that there is a deadline, use the deadline and recognize that there is an opportunity to bring people together for it."