By David Drucker
As the House Chief Deputy Majority Whip with a coveted slot on the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Peter Roskam regularly finds himself at the nexus of the political and policy issues driving the debate on Capitol Hill.
The Illinois Republican's job is to help GOP leadership line up support for all manner of legislation -- and count the votes. The GOP is enjoying its second largest House majority since World War II, but rarely has Roskam's task been an easy one. The deputy whip's role in helping Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp shepherd comprehensive tax reform is equally fraught with political peril and uncertainty.
With Monday's deadline for Americans to file their tax returns with the IRS, CQ Roll Call thought it was a good time to sit down with Roskam, 51, and discuss the House Republicans' effort to overhaul the tax code, why Democrats keep outflanking the GOP on the issue of taxes and whether the White House should hold its breath waiting for the GOP to agree to another tax increase.
In part one of our Q&A, the fourth-term congressman, who represents the suburban Chicago 6th District, also telegraphs how the House is likely to address gun control. Plus, Roskam opens up on what he thinks of the Senate in a characterization you don't want to miss. Look for part two of our Q&A on Tuesday, when Roskam talks immigration, national politics and the challenge of whipping a sometimes fractious House Republican conference
CQ Roll Call: Today is tax day. Do Americans pay too much of their income to the federal treasury every year?
Roskam: Do people pay too much in taxes? Yes. They spend an extraordinary amount of time, certainly, complying with the tax code. I did a manufacturer's round table in my district last week, where the theme of complexity was as much of a concern as tax rates.
CQ Roll Call: As Republicans have in the past, you're advocating for comprehensive tax reform legislation that simplifies the code; broadens the base; closes loopholes and lowers personal and corporate rates. Is there anything that Republicans can do to get better traction for this message, so that voters find it more appealing? President Barack Obama keeps managing to outflank the GOP on this issue.
Roskam: I think what we can do is produce a tax reform bill and go out and communicate on it. Assuming you can communicate what it is to a line worker -- which is really what you're asking. How does a line worker feel connected to an esoteric tax reform concept? If it's white papers and all that other stuff, it goes completely by people. But if there's a connection to their daily lives, then all of a sudden it's like, oh, that makes sense to me.
CQ Roll Call: But why do you think Obama continues to outmaneuver Republicans politically on the issue of taxes and tax reform?
Roskam: The president, as he approaches this debate, is choosing to redefine terms. For example, the president has redefined, over the course of his presidency, the term "bipartisanship.' Bipartisanship used to mean, sit down, negotiate, common ground -- the president's new definition of bipartisanship is, you vote for my bill. Or, the president is redefining balance. Balance historically has meant, one plus one equals two. Now the president characterizes it as long term fiscal sustainability, which is an absurdity.
CQ Roll Call: Given that Obama's version of tax reform is very different than yours, and given that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has shown a disinclination to send the president bills he opposes, can you explain why proponents of comprehensive tax reform should have confidence in your effort?
Roskam: The best way for tax reform to fail, is don't do the work. If we don't do the work, if we don't try, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. [Ways and Means Chairman] Dave Camp has adopted a strategy, right when he got the gavel at the beginning of the 112th Congress, and he laid out a theme of competitiveness. That is, how do you create in the U.S. the most competitive tax jurisdiction? I'm not here pumping sunshine to say, "Oh yeah, game, set, match, let me show you the whip card, it's a very easy proposition.' But by the same token, there's an advantage in that, the level of dissatisfaction with the current code is epic.
CQ Roll Call: Do you think you and your members are prepared to withstand the barrage of pressure from interests who don't like the current tax code except for their loophole? Is the political will there?
Roskam: To the same extent that we heard that parallel argument on the budget; we heard the same thing. If we hadn't had our experience with the [2011 and 2012] budget, I would be more tepid in my predictions. But we've got our work cut out for us. I'm not for a second minimizing the nature of the challenge.
CQ Roll Call: Obama just released a fiscal 2014 budget proposal that includes some entitlement reform but also tax increases. He called it his "bottom line" offer and that it's now up to congressional Republicans to meet him halfway. What is your reaction and exactly how committed are the Republicans to opposing tax hikes?
Roskam: We would argue, alright, you got $600 billion in revenue at the end of the year; you've got $1 trillion in revenue from Obamacare that you're not talking about. Where's the commensurate cuts? And so, in answer to your question -- the revenue question is a complete nonstarter with our members.
CQ Roll Call: On gun control, the Senate is set to begin debating a bill to expand background checks. What can Americans expect the House to do?
Roskam: On the issue of guns and firearm safety: Remember, the House has a fairly low expectation of the United States Senate. The Senate has demonstrated a capacity in the past to come up with deals and gangs and schemes and this and that, and very little, by the way, of substance. So, if two senators are able to persuade a majority of senators through their process, and a bill comes over, what you're going to see is, it will be referred to the Judiciary Committee for consideration. So there's not going be an attempt to put the Senate bill on the floor directly, and our members will have a lot to say about it. And you'll see really a highly functional process engaged, all the way around.