Meet the New 'Accidental' Tax Man
Policy + Politics

Meet the New 'Accidental' Tax Man

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

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.

Politics permeate the family. Levin’s wife of more than 50 years, Victoria Levin, an advocate for children’s mental health issues, died of breast cancer just prior to the 2008 election. A Detroit native, Levin graduated from the University of Chicago, earned a masters in international relations at Columbia University and his law degree from Harvard. He was elected to the Michigan state Senate in 1964, and became minority leader in 1969.

Levin ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1970 and 1974. He served four years as an assistant administrator in the Agency for International Development, where, he says, he honed his negotiation skills and managed to listen to all sides before making his decisions.

“I had to make numerous decisions about projects,” he said. “I rejected some and accepted others.”

Despite his laid-back style, Levin can be a fierce fighter for things he believes in. After the death of Rep. Robert Matsui of California in January 2005, Levin became the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, where he strongly opposed Republican efforts to partially privatize Social Security by allowing the creation of personal savings accounts, and put the GOP majority on the defensive.

As chairman of the Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee, he supported a free trade agreement with Canada backed by auto manufacturers and the United Auto Workers, but he was a strong opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.

Levin says that his far ranging experience on the Ways and Means Committee has been an enormous benefit to him as he assumes control of the committee, which is responsible for writing tax code, health care measures and trade policy.

“I served on four of the six subcommittees (of Ways and Means),” he said last week. “I have been very active on tax issues as a longtime member of the committee. I think the chairman should be active on all key issues. And he should be collaborative and strong, and I hope to be both.”

And he plans to be deeply involved in the Democrats’ final push to try to pass health care legislation, in a way that Rangel could not be because of the ethics charges hanging over him.

“I’ve been in all the meetings,” Levin said. “The Ways and Means Committee has very major pieces of the health care bill and I’ll be very active.”