Meet the New 'Accidental' Tax Man

Soft-Spoken and Rumpled, Michigan Democrat Sander Levin Replaces Flamboyant Rangel as Chairman of Ways and Means

New House Ways and Means Chairman Levin brings a more mild-mannered style to the committee chairmanship.
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The Fiscal Times
March 14, 2010

The House Ways and Means Committee has been led by many storied Democrats in the past half century: Wilbur Mills, who helped create Medicare; Dan Rostenkowski, who shaped much of modern-day tax policy and Charles Rangel, the first African-American in the powerful post.

Last week, by an accident of history, a slightly rumpled, soft-spoken, deliberate, relatively obscure Michigan Democrat named Sander (everyone calls him “Sandy”) Levin assumed the chairmanship – and became the point man for the House Democratic leadership’s economic agenda.

It’s a very high profile job for a man who is little known outside of the Capitol and his suburban Detroit congressional district and who insists he never coveted the Ways and Means Committee gavel. He was quite happy to have led several important subcommittees over his quarter century in the House and to tend to middle-class concerns and international trade issues.

Rangel, a Harlem Democrat, resigned the chairmanship  March 3 after the House ethics committee found that he had accepted corporate trips against House rules. After a bit of scurrying, Levin, 78, was elevated to the chairmanship on an acting basis, leaping over Rep. Fortney “Pete” Stark, D-Calif., who was viewed by other House Democrats as too controversial.

“I didn’t plan this,” Levin said, sinking into an easy chair in his office near the end of a long day. “Charlie Rangel and I have been close friends for a long time, I have mixed emotions but I am ready to lead the committee.”

The unassuming Levin says he has no designs on being permanent chairman. But other lawmakers who have tasted power have found it hard to give up. And with his new-found visibility and influence, he is much better positioned to promote his views on tax policy, trade and Social Security.

On Tuesday, the committee will take up a package of small-business tax breaks largely geared to exclude stock from capital gains taxes. That bill comes straight from the House Democratic leadership, which means that Levin will become the point person for the Democrats in a way that Rangel could not because of the ethics cloud hanging over him.

The bill his committee takes up Tuesday is modeled after one of his own – a plan to exclude some small-business stock from capital gains taxes and from the calculation used to determine the alternative minimum tax. The AMT tax is designed to assure that taxpayers with large deductions pay at least a minimum amount of tax.

President Obama also proposed similar legislation, at a cost of $7.9 billion over 10 years according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. A price tag for Levin’s legislation has not been set.

After the jobs bill, Levin said his panel plans to review a tax credit for hiring unemployed workers and the bill approved by the Senate last week that extends a handful of expiring tax provisions. That bill includes tax breaks for business expenditures, research and development, and for locating stores in distressed urban “empowerment zones.” Levin’s low-key style is a far cry from that of the gravelly-voiced, flamboyant Rangel.

“Everyone brings their own style to whatever comes their way and I think Sandy has a very deliberate style, in some ways exhaustingly deliberate,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., who has served on Ways and Means with Levin for the past 12 years. “He is very thoughtful and respectful of the committee – a very even keel kind of guy and not prone to excitement.”

Levin is part of a prominent Michigan political family. He is the older brother (by three years) of Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, but has often been eclipsed by his younger sibling, a leading liberal voice in Washington.