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Taxing Job Energizes Committee Staff Chief

Koch Works on Hill to Save the World

The Energizer bunny has nothing on Cathy Koch. She assumed the helm of the Senate Finance Committee tax department just as the economy headed into default last year, and she has been cranking out legislation ever since.

“My first week on the job we were doing the first economic recovery bill, and we have not stopped since,” Koch said. “I think I got a recess in the last Congress, but it was the only recess that hasn’t been interrupted by some kind of event that takes the attention of the chairman of the Finance Committee.”

Koch joined the committee as acting chief in January 2008, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average was just off its 14,000-point highwater mark and hovered around 13,000. To counter the downturn, the committee generated a fistful of bills over the next year that were aimed at jump-starting the economy. Koch was on frontline for each negotiation.

“I think we enacted six or seven bills last year,” she said. “If you look at the history, that’s a lot of bills to be enacted into law.”

Last December, Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) saw fit to officially give Koch the title of tax chief, and she continues to play an integral role in crafting the tax-related portions of legislation that remains targeted on getting the economy back on track.

Baucus “counts on staff a lot, and it makes the job so much more challenging and satisfying,” Koch said. “He really makes you feel like he needs you, and that’s nice.”

Koch hails from Yardley, Pa., and her typical workday lasts roughly 11 hours as she hops from one meeting to the next coordinating the legislative priorities of lawmakers. As tax chief, her primary task is hearing from stakeholders during policy debates, not delving into the guts of the tax code. That represents something of a change from her previous jobs, and no longer thumbing through subsections of dry documents on a regular basis has created a bit of a wanting.

“A lot of my job is talking to people, finding out where they are, how we differ and how we can get together,” she said. “I miss sitting down with the law and the tax code, but I am very pleased with my job right now.”

Koch came to enjoy the subject of taxation while earning her Ph.D. in economics from Georgetown University. Surprisingly, it seems to dovetail with her original goal of saving the world because tax collection, she believes, is a proven way to change behavior for the better.

“I was going to reform and save the world, and the way we finance everything is through taxes,” Koch said. Tax collection “causes a lot of behavioral reaction, and I was hooked from my very first finance course.”

Koch is also a veteran at constructing agreements and has ample Hill experience. Before her current position, she was senior tax policy adviser and staff director of the Finance Subcommittee on Energy, Natural Resources and Infrastructure for Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), where she focused on energy tax policy. She began her career with the Joint Committee on Taxation, so she clearly enjoys being a part of the government.

“I got my Ph.D. at Georgetown because I wanted to be as close to the government as possible,” she said. “That turned out to be a good goal.”

Looking ahead, high on Koch’s to-do list is finding consensus on health care reform. And she shares her boss’s enthusiasm for the idea of retooling the system to lower costs and broaden coverage.

“Health care reform is the signal most priority for the committee of both the tax team and the health team,” she said. “That is really where we’re focused.”

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