Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sad news

Earlier this week, former House of Representatives Legislative Counsel Ward Hussey died. Ward was the chief person responsible for actual drafting of the Internal Revenue Code from at least the early 1950s through the Tax Reform Act of 1986.

That sounds like a left-handed compliment at best (then again, I'm left-handed and it's a strong part of my identity). But in fact it is a straightforward compliment. Ward was not responsible for the often stupid policies that he was charged with executing. Nor was it his job to make the Code easy for casual readers to scan (an impossible task in any event, given the microscopically variegated rules that Congress continually demanded). Rather, his main job was to get it right so that it worked technically, including when it was being read by sophisticated tax lawyers who wanted to get it wrong, to their clients' advantage, if they were left the room to do so without acting in entire bad faith. Often this involved ensuring that huge Rube Goldberg machines did in fact have all their moving parts working in sync - where the parts might include prior Rube Goldberg machines, implemented in past years' legislation, that needed to continue operating alongside the new ones.

He also had to turn vague ideas into statutory language, where the proponents hadn't properly thought through what they were doing. A classic example from just before my time, which I believe was his work (unless John Buckley, working with him, did it), involved deciding that the building rehabilitation tax credit should be drafted to require, in its definition of rehab as distinct from new construction, that three of the preexisting outer walls remain in place. As a matter of basic policy, perhaps a tax credit based on keeping three of the outer walls intact doesn't make enormous sense. But that wasn't his call. He was presented with a vague statutory concept and had to make it feasible to implement, and he did.

Think of all the different social policies that are pursued through the Internal Revenue Code, or the fantastic complexity of a cops-and-robbers realization-based income tax with taxpayer move followed by government counter-move, then taxpayer counter-counter-move (like Spy vs. Spy in accounting lingo), and one can start to understand how challenging it was for one person to be in charge of House-side drafting of absolutely everything in the tax law. Against that background, and of course with the help of his own staff (e.g., John Buckley) plus the Joint Committee on Taxation and the House and Treasury staffs, he did a fantastic job.

On a more personal note, I well remember working with him on the Tax Reform Act of 1986. I was a Legislation Attorney at the Joint Committee, which I had joined just before work started on the 1986 Act, and was still perhaps a bit green behind the ears (the cliche I've chosen over "young cub.") I was warned before going to my first House drafting session: "You'd better know what you're talking about, and also try to be concise, or Ward will be all over you." It's not so much that he tested the young 'uns, as that they had to prove that they deserved his professional esteem. He knew all too well how sloppy and self-infatuated young staffers can potentially be. After the initial trial period, I felt that I had succeeded and indeed that he liked me, which was a relief.

You'd all be in there sitting around an enormous table. The JCT people, deferring as needed to the House majority staffers, would explain what something was supposed to do. He'd ask questions and listen for a while, then grab a piece of chalk and start working on a big green chalkboard, taking ideas but very much in the lead.

Somehow he reminded me of a benign Burgess Meredith (whose best-known roles to me at the time were as the Penguin in the Batman TV show and the fight manager in Rocky). I wish I could have seen him again, and I'm sorry that he is gone.


Jim Wetzler said...

To anyone who has worked on the Congressional tax staff, the drafting sessions in the House Legislative Counsel's office, led by Ward and the very able successors that he trained, were among the most intellectually challenging experiences of his or her professional life, aptly captured in Dan's post. Ward was as good at what he did--draft tax laws--as anyone I've ever dealt with in any field of endeavor. A model public servant.

Daniel Shaviro said...

Pete Davis, formerly an economist at the Joint Committee on Taxation, asked me to post the following comment from him:

I remember how intimidated I felt in my first drafting session with the revered House Legislative Counsel Ward Hussey in 1974. He welcomed we warmly in front of a room full of some of the country's best young tax lawyers, and here I was a 24 year-old with only a bachelors degree in economics, who ran the Joint Tax Committee individual income tax computer model, but had no formal training in tax policy whatsoever. I sat like a mummy for two hours until just before lunch, I blurted out, "Do you know how much that costs?" The discussion halted in dead silence, as I ventured several hundred million dollars were in question. Back then, that was a lot of money. Some adjustments were made, and, as the meeting was breaking up, Ward called me over and said, "Pete, come back anytime." I walked out feeling better, but, as many times as I sat in that room, I never felt like I knew an iota as much about the Tax Code as Ward and his superb proteges. It was a privilege to watch Ward craft tax law with such precision and economy. American taxpayers will never know how much better off they were to have their tax laws written by Ward Hussey.

michael a. livingston said...

One of my favorite memories of Ward was the way that he always started from scratch even if someone brought in proposed language. One time, as I recall, someone brought in a pre-drafted provision and handed it too him. Very nicely done, he said, and tossed it in the waste basket to begin anew. It was almost like the Code walking and talking when he was in the room.

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