BY RICHARD GOLDSTEIN
Does the fate of the republic depend on the supercommittee? It’s easy to forget now that the committee has failed to reach an agreement, but as it was organizing in August and September, the verbiage was stark.
The Washington Post said, “It must restore the nation’s financial stability and the reputation of Congress.” Time Magazine declared, “It will succeed because it has to: the long-term U.S. deficit and debt problems are too dire.” And the committee’s Texas co-chairman asked: “Will history record that we wrote the first chapter of America’s decline or … left the next generation with greater blessings of liberty and vaults of limitless opportunities?”
It was up to the supercommittee — six Republicans, six Democrats, half from the House and half from the Senate — to make at least $1.5 trillion worth of deficit-cutting decisions by Thanksgiving. If they can do this, the legislation will be on a fast legislative track through Congress, which must act before Christmas. Failure to produce a law triggers $1.2 trillion in cuts to domestic and defense spending.
Enter Mark Prater (LLMT 87), a well-respected if low-profile Washington, D.C.-insider who is a tax-and-budget-policy specialist serving on the Senate Finance Committee staff since 1990. Low profile, that is, until Aug. 30. That’s when co-Chairmen Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and Rep. Jeb Hensarling, D-Texas, appointed the UF Law Graduate Tax alumnus legislative staff director for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, better known as the supercommittee.
“It’s a very unique legislative power and I think expectations are very high,” Prater acknowledged from his Capitol Hill office. “These 12 members have been presented with a unique set of tools and resources with a vehicle that is almost unprecedented in both the power and the privilege it would enjoy in both the House and the Senate.”
In the age of gridlock, that ubiquitous allusion to legislative traffic jams, the metaphor for this committee is fast track. It’s a thoroughbred pointed down a hardened straightaway. The procedural roadblocks are cleared for its legislation: No filibusters — the requirement for 60 votes in the Senate — and no amendments, which can shave votes from legislative proposals.
But before kicking its stirrups in the House and Senate horse track, the supercommitee must reach its own agreement.
As legislative staff director, it’s Prater’s job to oversee the supercommitee’s care and feeding so members can fashion a majority behind a plan to contain the growth of federal deficits and debt.
GO SOUTH, YOUNG MAN
Prater came to UF Law from his home in Portland, Ore., juris doctor in hand from Willamette University College of Law. He was aiming to complement his undergraduate accounting degree with an advanced tax law qualification.
The Oregonian remembers getting off the plane in North Central Florida where summer smacked him in the face.
“Coming to Gainesville in the middle of August for somebody who has never experienced that kind of humidity requires a physical adjustment.’’
As the weather turned cooler, he found himself ensconced in a year-long program with great diversity among the student body and a great deal of rigor in the coursework. High expectations of UF Law professors, Prater said, have served him well as he climbed the ladder of the Senate to become lead tax counsel for the Finance Committee. In his temporary job on the supercommitee he heads a staff of 14, of whom 11 are policy experts on everything from national defense to health care.
Prater held up UF Law Professor Michael Oberst (JD 68), now emeritus, as a model.
“He’s kind of a tough professor, but he treated everybody the same and insisted on a high standard of preparation and communication and technical accuracy. A good teacher expects a lot out of his or her students and expects them to perform and pushes them to perform. I think those are all values of leadership, too,” Prater said. “When you move up in an organization a lot of times you’re teaching, guiding, counseling them, sometimes disciplining them.”
After Prater earned his degree from UF Law, he returned to Oregon where he began his tax law practice. It was not long before Lindy Paull (JD 79, LLMT 80) came calling during a staff recruiting swing through Oregon, home of Sen. Bob Packwood, the longtime top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. Paull is a principal with PricewaterhouseCoopers. She served as the legislative staff director for Senate Finance Committee Republicans from 1986 to 1998.
“He was a tax practitioner with good experience and knew Oregon, and I thought, he’s going to add a richness to our staff,” Paull said of Prater.
Prater’s graduation from Paull’s alma mater didn’t hurt his chances for a job offer.
The Graduate Tax Program is regularly ranked among the top five in the nation. The most recent U.S. News & World Report rankings placed UF Law as No. 1 among public universities and No. 2 overall behind New York University. “I was influenced that he had his LL.M. from the University of Florida,” Paull said.
Prater said he had intended to stay in Washington, D.C., for a couple of years but he soon caught the political bug and two years have become 21.
On the supercommitee, Paull said, it’s Prater’s job to keep the “trains rolling.”
“Make sure the public meetings go well, they have good speakers, good witnesses that are going to inform the members, good dialogue, substantive issues,’’ she said. “They have to assemble all of the data in a usable format so that they can make decisions, and all of that has to happen, like, yesterday.”
“Yesterday” because the timeframe for the committee requires an effort that is nothing short of “herculean,” she said.
The committee must report a bill to the House and Senate floor by Nov. 23 and the House and Senate must pass the legislation by Dec. 23.
“I’ve never seen a committee like this before, and I’ve never seen a timeline like this before,” Paull said.
The committee held three public meetings through mid-September then largely fell from public view for more than a month. Prater’s staff and committee members continued to hold meetings in private. Prater estimates he’s been working 80 to 90 hours per week to keep those trains rolling.
It’s no wonder that the supercommittee co-chairmen issued a statement calling him a “workhorse” when they announced his appointment. Since then he has recruited his staff and laid the groundwork for legislative business. “This 52-and-a-half year old body is definitely feeling it,” he said.
The father of 4-year-old James and husband of fellow congressional staffer Lori, Prater said he keeps tabs on the Gators football team. He also keeps in touch with friends he met during his year in Gainesville as well as other UF Law Gators in the Washington, D.C., area. And despite the brutal schedule, he gets regular exercise.
“I think it’s really important in these jobs to stay in good physical shape, keep yourself sharp,” he said. “I frequently go to the gym — did some cardio this morning as a matter of fact. It helps you deal with the stress and the pressures that come with these Capitol Hill jobs.’’
Beyond the sheer work ethic, Prater’s tax expertise was seen as a sign that supercommitee members are serious about tax reform as part of the budget solution. Prater’s appointment also signaled a stab at bipartisanship.
“The Finance Committee has a tradition of problem-solving, a bipartisan tradition,” Prater said. “From what the members say, that track record is why I was selected to come over here. By definition it is a bi-partisan, bi-cameral product for it to succeed.”
Prater said he has noticed a seriousness and collegial approach among staff and members of the supercommitee.
Paull credited Prater’s rise to his easy-going manner and photographic recall of political and policy intrigues since his arrival on Capitol Hill.
“A Democrat picked him off a Republican staff … so that speaks miles for him and his abilities to really work together and find solutions, and he’s really good at that. He has been through every major budget bill since 1990,” she said.
HOW WE GOT INTO THIS MESS
Prater is now in the middle of what may be the mother of all budget bills. Born from the summer’s deal to raise the debt ceiling in return for budget cuts, the supercommittee was created as the venue for Round 2 of that budget fight.
The supercommittee’s goal is “trying to get at least $1.5 trillion. Of that, $300 billion would be interest savings, so it’s about $1.2 trillion in savings,” Prater said. “That’s a daunting task and a lot of members would like to do a lot more than that.”
Hap Shashy (JD 73), chief counsel to the IRS from 1990 to 1993 and now partner in Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP, explained the forces that have led to this budgetary reckoning.
During the Ellen Bellet Gelberg Tax Policy Lecture held Sept. 30 at UF Law, Shashy pointed to two line graphs showing the deficit bouncing along with a small gap between spending and revenue through most of the post-war period. Until, that is, there came an economic shock to the system.
“The deficit transcends time, it transcends political parties … and it also transcends different versions of the tax system,” said Shashy, who sits on the Levin College of Law Board of Trustees. “And then the meltdown hits and the Great Recession hits and that’s when the deficit — the gap — became very big, unsustainable, and got everybody’s attention and people started thinking seriously about what needs to be done with it.”
Three years since the economic meltdown of 2008 and the national debt has grown rapidly, equal to about 100 percent of the economy’s yearly output. Even after the economy recovers from its current doldrums, rapidly expanding health care costs and interest on the national debt will keep deficits high, Shashy noted.
Shashy said solving the problem is likely to include a combination of spending cuts, tax increases and growth for the economy.
But how much of any of these elements will contribute to solving the budget problem remains uncertain. Shashy pointed to reasons that include: political deadlock over whether to raise taxes or only cut spending; upcoming elections that could alter the political landscape; the knotty issue of tax reform; and the confusing nature of budget deficit and debt projections.
Legislating a solution despite these obstacles is the mission of the supercommittee.
And what if it fails? What if the short timeframe, partisan intransigence and the sheer complexity of the task conspire to block an agreement to contain the deficit and the debt?
Prater harkens back to his days as a quarter-miler in Portland’s Parkrose Senior High School. He called himself a skinny 5-foot 9-inch kid lined up against the 6-footers who looked like half-backs. Those half-backs might be able to beat him through the first 100 meters. But it takes speed and endurance to cross the finish line first after circling the entire track.
But for now, he’s on the back stretch of that quarter-mile.
“This committee has extraordinary opportunities and extraordinary responsibilities, and it doesn’t have much time so it’s like a 400 (meter dash) to me,” he said. “You’re going to have to give it your best, run as hard as you can, and there are going to be factors working against you, too.”
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