Street Talk: Rangel’s Ways and Means Exit Feels Like Old Times

Posted March 5, 2010 at 4:41pm

When James Healey learned last week that Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) was stepping down as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, he thought something along the lines of: Again?

[IMGCAP(1)]Healey, a veteran lobbyist at Prime Policy Group, was raised in politics under the tutelage of former Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), who was indicted in the 1990s on corruption charges and lost the tax-writing panel’s gavel as a result.

Like so many of the former Rostenkowski aides on K Street, Healey has been a fan of Rangel and the committee, which is one of the Capitol’s most powerful. Now that Rangel has lost his chairmanship amid an ethics committee investigation into his finances, these lobbyists are wondering whether there’s something about the panel that draws an extra layer of scrutiny and whether its force is on the wane.

“The Democratic chairman of the Ways and Means Committee historically has been somebody who has been very, very visible,” Healey said. “And I think they’re easy targets. If you can take down the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, that’s something.”

Jeanne Campbell, a Rostenkowski alumna and longtime lobbyist who runs the Campbell Group, recalled that in Rostenkowski’s case, prosecutors “threw everything at the wall to see what would stick.”

Rostenkowski ultimately went to prison after taking a plea deal. After serving his time, he was pardoned by President Bill Clinton.

“If you’re a big dog, they’re going to go after you,” Campbell said. “They don’t go after the junior members of the Ways and Means Committee.”

Of course, not everyone sees it that way.

Speaking privately, one lobbyist who knows both Rangel and Rostenkowski said they fell victim to the “arrogance of power.” And that arrogance has hurt the committee and tarnished some of the people who made careers working for it and are now on K Street, this lobbyist added.

“When I look at the Ways and Means Committee now, I see a diminished entity,” the lobbyist concluded.

A Republican lobbyist who works the committee on the behalf of client interests said it was a sad day last week when Rangel lost the chairmanship under the cloud of scandal.

“Looking back at recent years, it’s also been sad because the committee hasn’t seen as much legislation as I would’ve expected,” this lobbyist said. “Much of the decision-making occurred at the leadership level.”

When a committee cedes even a bit of jurisdiction, it can end up getting watered down more. That can make K Street’s Ways and Means specialists, who have been some of the most sought-after in the business, less valuable.

The less power that the chairman has, many lobbyists believe, the harder it is to get something done.

In the 1980s, when Rostenkowski shepherded a Tax Reform Act, the chairman of Ways and Means enjoyed unparalleled clout.

“The chairmen had a good degree of independence in terms of how they went about fashioning their legislation,” one former Ways and Means aide said. “They could cross the aisle if they wanted.”

Now that a new chairman, Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), has been installed, most tax lobbyists don’t expect to see Rangel return to the post.

But Campbell said Rostenkowski became better for his suffering, and she predicts Rangel will come out on top.

Rostenkowski “went through everything, and he emerged and is stronger because of it,” she said.

As for Rangel, Campbell said, “I think he’ll be ultimately vindicated in my opinion. I think that he’ll prevail.”

Healey, whose father served in the House with Rostenkowski, hopes she’s right.

“I would hope [Rangel] could come back; he’s a great chairman in a long line of great chairmen,” Healey said.

No matter what, Healey is confident of the committee’s power. “It’s still going to be the most powerful committee regardless of what happens,” he said.

Another former committee aide, who is now a downtown lobbyist, said there’s a bright spot for the committee in Rangel’s departure. “The institutions are alive, and they are making in their own way human self-corrections,” the lobbyist said.