Hope for Revenue Reform? The Deficit Supercommittee Gets a Tax-Smart Staff Director

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The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction — better known as the “supercommittee” charged with pinpointing $1.5 trillion in spending cuts by Thanksgiving — doesn’t yet have a formal operating budget or a date set for its first meeting. But at least it now has a staff director.

As they gear up for a frenetic fall of budget wrangling, Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington and Republican Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, the co-chairs of the bipartisan, bicameral committee, announced Tuesday that they have chosen Mark Prater, a veteran GOP staffer, to serve as the supercommittee’s top aide. His selection suggests that the two parties will target tax reform as they probe for ways to build on the recommendations of the Biden and Simpson-Bowles commissions and slash the federal deficit by Nov. 23.“The know-how and experience Mark brings to this difficult task is exactly what we agreed must be the top priority for the staff serving all the members of this Committee,” Murray and Hensarling wrote in a joint statement. “Mark has a well-earned reputation for being a workhorse who members of both parties have relied on. We look forward to working with him and are confident that his approach and expertise will be valuable as we weigh the difficult but necessary choices ahead.”

Prater is a tax lawyer who currently serves as deputy staff director for Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, where he’s worked since 1990 helping to craft legislation such as the Bush-era tax cuts. “Having someone who’s knowledgeable about tax law and also credible to Republicans run the show maximizes the odds that the committee will have some kind of result,” writes Matt Yglesias. “Prater was, for example, involved in the 1997 budget negotiations that managed to raise revenues while cutting capital gains tax rates. He at least remembers, in principle, what a bipartisan revenue-raising initiative might look like.”

To meet the terms of the debt deal sealed earlier this month, the supercommittee — comprised of six Republicans and six Democrats, three from each chamber — has to find at least $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next decade to avoid triggering automatic spending reductions that would be painful for both parties. The six Republicans on the committee — Hensarling, House colleagues Fred Upton and Dave Camp, and Senators Jon Kyl, Rob Portman and Pat Toomey — met on Capitol Hill Wednesday to look ahead to its first meeting, which is required to take place by Sept. 16.

While the GOP would seem to have an edge with the selection of Prater, Democrats say the longtime staffer’s deep experience will serve both sides. “Over the last 20 years, Mark Prater has built a well-deserved reputation as an honest broker, not just a Republican staffer, well capable of finding the middle ground and producing results,” said Bill Dauster, a deputy chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

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