The selection of veteran legislator Sander Levin, D-Mich., as the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, succeeding the embattled Charles Rangel, D-NY, on its surface suggests a high degree of continuity in the chief tax writing committee.
Levin is a solid progressive and close ally of the House Democratic Leadership, with a near-perfect rating from AFL-CIO and the Americans for Democratic Action. The new committee chairman enjoys a strong reputation for legislative innovation and has demonstrated a long–standing ability to work across partisan and ideological lines.
Levin is known as a workhorse who places a premium on caution and deliberation. The Michigan solon is a prominent, outspoken voice for regional manufacturing interests, but has fewer ties to Wall Street than Rangel. Chairman Levin is likely to display subtle substantive differences beyond the stylistic ones with his more flamboyant predecessor.
Levin is considered an expert on trade policy, with close ties to organized labor. He has been a strong supporter of active US engagement in the World Trade Organization, and played a pivotal role in the enactment of legislation facilitating China’s accession to the WTO during the Clinton administration. Levin opposed NAFTA, but supported free trade agreements with Australia and Morocco.
Levin can be expected to continue many of Rangel’s current policy priorities, and defend the Ways and Means Committee's jurisdiction against encroachments from other committees. In other areas, the Levin appointment may have important policy implications:
- On tax policy, it may reduce the likelihood of strong Ways and Means initiative in international tax reform and the lowering of corporate rates. It may increase the likelihood of the rollback of Bush era tax rates and full reinstatement of the federal estate tax. It may also facilitate broader use of corporate “loophole closers” as revenue sources to accommodate legislative paygo rules. However, the shift may improve the prospects for swift action on expiring tax provisions: with fewer distractions, Levin is well positioned to push through any lingering tax extender legislation, which is a bipartisan priority.
- On health care policy, Levin can be expected to aggressively support health care reform legislation advocated by the Obama administration, but be skeptical of efforts to achieve cost control through the taxation of so-called “Cadillac” health care plans.
- On trade policy, Levin is more likely to resist the consideration of existing free trade agreement proposals (Panama, Colombia, and South Korea – especially the last two) and to take an active role in shaping the Trans-Pacific Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP). Levin will likely continue to advocate an active US role in stalled WTO negotiations. Levin may also advocate new trade legislation: possibly including an expansion of trade adjustment assistance (TAA) and enhancements of domestic trade laws.
- On climate change, Levin will be a strong voice for promoting future tariffs on products imported from jurisdictions lacking adequate regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.
While it is impossible to predict serious policy changes in the Ways and Means Committee at this advanced stage of the session’s legislative calendar, it is clear that Sander Levin’s new position as chairman – coupled with a safe Detroit-area congressional seat – will vault him to a key policy making role in Congress in coming months.