Word has just come out of Washington that Ed Kleinbard has been named the new Chief of Staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Ed is a personal friend, which naturally colors my views. But our being friends reflects, among other factors, my admiration for the abilities that he will bring to the job. So I don't think it should induce any skepticism about my endorsement.
JCT chief is unquestionably a very challenging role. Friends with inside-the-Beltway knowledge about tax politics have gone so far as to call it the single worst job in America. Hyperbole perhaps, but they have a point. I hope I'm not breaching confidences if I say that I am among the people who was asked about possible interest in seeking the job. I rapidly, indeed instantaneously, concluded that I did not, even though the suggestion was flattering to one with my background as a former JCT staffer, due to what I know about the position and (perhaps more importantly) what I know about myself. This would not have been the right job for me, particularly in terms of my temperament but also my skill set, even if I otherwise wanted it.
Some people who know Ed are not convinced that he has the right temperament for it either. In the NYC practice world, he is not famous for genially tolerating stupidity or sloppy thinking, both of which one can expect to encounter frequently around Capital Hill. But he has spent more than thirty years working with clients, colleagues in the Bar, and government officials, among others, all with great success. His charisma and charm will carry him through so far as the world is concerned - I'd be more worried that his high standards will affect his enjoyment of the job than his success and effectiveness.
A couple of downsides to the job these days. First, JCT has been all but wiped out as a real player in recent years. This reflects a host of factors, including the growth of other tax staffs, more rapid turnover on the Hill with consequent loss of institutional memory and commitment, and the fact that lobbyists have such enormous power these days and have gotten so far inside the process. (As I'm currently reading Harry Potter 7, this brings to mind Voldemort's penetration of the Ministry.) The only recent JCT chief who could really overcome this was Ken Kies, but that reflected his personal connections and influence, much more than anything institutionally rooted. Second, this is not a propitious time for significant tax legislation, given the gridlock arising from the Democrats' thin majority (and Republican obstructionism of substantive measures in all areas) plus the character of (or should I say in) the White House. But perhaps 2009 will be a propitious time - there certainly will be plenty to do (whether or not Congress is able to do it), what with expiring provisions and the rising threat of the fiscal gap. Hard to tell what to expect before the 2008 elections.
On the positive side, I can't see why Senator Baucus and Congressman Rangel would have named Ed to the job, rather than someone blander and safer, unless they wanted to make use of his energy and knowledge. There certainly is room for an energetically run JCT to take the lead in analyzing issues, identifying legislative options, and so forth. Take the carried interest debate. Under Ed, I could well imagine the JCT having taken the lead in offering a comprehensive analysis of the issues and competing views, developing and evaluating proposals, etcetera. Not playing a partisan role but teeing up the issue properly so it can be better discussed and understood, and so that realistic options of all sorts will be on the table. Obviously, no JCT chief can do this, even assuming adequate staffing levels and time, if the committee chairs don't want it done. But their picking Ed strikes me as hopeful evidence that perhaps they do want it done. Again, why pick him otherwise.
So I'm very glad about this appointment from the standpoint of the public interest, and more guardedly glad about it from the standpoint of a friend and fellow member of the NYC tax policy community (which will have to do without Ed for a while).