By Kelsey Snell
The future of the U.S. tax code will ultimately be determined by the president and a handful of top leaders on Capitol Hill. But when it comes to a small slice of the emerging tax overhaul effort -- the House's effort to pare back a perennial package of business and personal tax breaks -- the man to talk to is currently a low-profile congressman from Galena, Ohio.
Hardly a marquee name, Pat Tiberi, the chairman of the House Ways and Means panel's Select Revenue Subcommittee, is nonetheless becoming an increasingly familiar face in tax circles.
The sixth-term lawmaker is Chairman Dave Camp's point man on the so-called tax extenders package, giving him influence over legislation that has come under far greater scrutiny in an era of budget restraint. It's also put him at the center of the broader tax overhaul effort, as Camp's deputy message master on tax reform.
As Tiberi tells it, he learned about life with the tax code as a real estate agent in suburban Columbus, and notes that "my dad, who has a 6th grade education, told me when I got my first job not to let the tax code stop me."
And he'll have his hands full when the often-unpredictable House Republican caucus returns from the November elections facing the looming expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts.
"The first thing we need to do is get all of our members on the same page. The chairman has done a very good job of getting us awfully close, but you can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," Tiberi told POLITICO. "There are members in the committee and in the House who would have a perfect proposal when we offer what would be good."
Some House members wait years to accrue enough seniority to sit on the Ways and Means committee, where taxes, trade bills, health care and Social Security changes are written. And after coming to Congress twelve years ago with his eye on joining the tax-writing committee, Tiberi wondered if he'd ever have the opportunity.
"I wanted to get on Ways and Means," Tiberi told POLITICO. But at the time the committee was stacked with veteran members who worked for years to get there. Many of them were present during the tax reform debate in 1986.
The well-connected Tiberi got his chance after a string of GOP electoral losses, retirements and vacated seats in 2006 made room for new blood on Ways and Means. Tiberi's rise may have been fast but it was hardly an accident. He was not deterred when things didn't immediately pan out. He lost his first bid for Ways and Means in late 2005 when the Ohio delegation chose him to replace then Rep. Rob Portman, who was leaving to work in the Bush White House. He spent the next year working on fellow Ohioan John Boehner's first successful bid for House Speaker. When Tiberi took a second shot at getting on the committee in 2007, he got an extra boost from Boehner that sealed the deal.
Camp, who took over the committee's reins in 2011 with the GOP takeover of the House, quickly drafted Tiberi to handle the tax subcommittee, in part because he demonstrated early on that he actually liked getting in the weeds, according to an aide. He uses small businesses to explain his position on nearly every issue -- a winning formula among Republicans. From territorial taxation to the payroll tax cut, his tax vision, he says, is crafted through the lens of small business.
"When I was a realtor, for the first time in my life I didn't have taxes withheld from my paycheck," he told POLITICO. "You don't miss what you don't have but you do miss it when you have to write a check to the federal government each quarter. Small business owners see that."
The Ohio Republican won his House seat in 2000 when current Ohio Gov. John Kasich, then chairman of the House Budget Committee, chose to retire after 17 years in the House. Tiberi had worked for the chairman as a staff assistant from 1984 to 1992, and Kasich campaigned on Tiberi's behalf -- an endorsement that helped lay the groundwork for Tiberi's warm reception in Washington.
He followed a well-worn formula: Cultivate relationships with leaders, take ownership of a single issue, reliably co-sponsor legislation and shepherd the party message. And he's had his eyes on tax reform from the start.
Part of Camp's plan was to empower relatively new members on the committee and enlist them to mobilize junior members during critical votes.
"There's been a lot of turnover on the committee," said one Republican Ways and Means Committee aide. "[Camp] wanted his own style, he really wanted to put the committee back on the map and that meant reinvigorating the members."
There is a deep divide between Republicans and Democrats on tax policy. Still, Democratic aides say Tiberi is smart, respectful and genuine. The ranking member on his committee, Richard Neal (D-Mass.), calls him a friend. When he was named chairman he organized an Italian dinner for all of the members of the subcommittee. He invited their staff and set out to make sure everyone got to know each other personally, according to aides.
As he ascends the House ranks, Tiberi has been honing his image as a down-to-earth former businessman and defender of the middle class and champion of bipartisanship. He tells stories of being raised by working-class Democrats and of being the first in his family to graduate high school.
"My first job was at McDonald's, my father was a machine worker and my mother was a seamstress," he said.
Tiberi points to owners of car dealerships to explain why the estate tax can't rise, saying that high-value inventory and low liquidity would doom the business. He cites manufacturers to push the extenders, arguing that research-and-development credits are key for small businesses looking to compete.
In the coming weeks, GOP tax writers will take on a host of unresolved issues, including the extenders package. While the Senate Finance Committee has advanced a bill already, Camp and Tiberi are waiting until after the elections to unveil a bill.
A comprehensive tax code rewrite will be a far heavier lift. But Tiberi thinks the need for a tax overhaul is sinking in.
"I think there is more and more understanding as the days and weeks go by," he says. "The Ways and Means Committee, the chairman, we're going to do this. No matter who is in the White House, we're going to do this."