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Politico: Pascrell Vows Robust Oversight Agenda as Chairman

ICYMI: Politico today profiles U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ-09) and his plans and agenda in the 117th Congress as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight. On February 2nd, Pascrell was tapped to continue leading the Oversight panel by his committee colleagues.

The text of the Politico profile authored by Aaron Lorenzo is provided below.

Pascrell vows robust oversight agenda despite Democrats’ control of Washington

Rep. Bill Pascrell had seethed for years over President Donald Trump’s decision to keep his tax returns from the public when IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig testified at a hearing Pascrell chaired last fall.

The New Jersey Democrat had previously blasted Rettig’s role in keeping Trump’s tax returns from House Democrats on multiple occasions, and at the hearing, Pascrell told Rettig he should prepare to resign after Joe Biden was sworn in as Trump's successor.

As the hearing ended, Pascrell also suggested he’d keep riding Rettig, saying he “wouldn’t get off the issue” and “I’m sure we’ll meet again.”

That day may be coming soon. Pascrell, who now chairs the Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee, plans to hold another hearing with Rettig on the start of tax filing season, which gets under way Feb. 12, and he expects to dig back into Trump’s tax returns.

Pascrell considers the matter central to restoring public confidence in the tax system, which he views as far from fair.

“Right now, we have a two-tier system — one for the regular folks and one for the fat cats,” he told POLITICO. “After many years of looking at this, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to.”

In addition to spotlighting Trump as an example, Pascrell also plans to reintroduce legislation to end tax breaks for carried interest — a form of compensation for private equity and hedge fund partners — and he’ll use his post to reinforce the fairness message implicit in the bill.

But limits nevertheless await Pascrell despite gaining a gavel for the first time since coming to Congress in 1997.

With Biden, a fellow Democrat, now in office, intraparty politics could eclipse Congress's oversight role. That puts the pugnacious Pascrell and other Democrats in Congress in a different position since their natural adversary Trump no longer runs the executive branch.

“It’ll be a huge difference,” said a former congressional aide who asked for anonymity to speak freely about Pascrell’s ability to set his own agenda. “Congressional oversight is always much more lax when the executive branch is controlled by the same party.”

But Pascrell insisted that Congress shouldn’t be cowed, his close affinity for Biden notwithstanding.

“It may be time for us to begin to challenge the dictates of the executive branch of government,” he said. “For the last four presidents, we’ve been losing strength — the legislature — and we got what we deserved in the former president. And I am not going to back down.”

Pascrell took the oversight gavel after the death of Rep. John Lewis, long the top Democrat on that subcommittee.

Pascrell has pretty free rein to probe IRS matters from his perch, but when it comes to Trump’s tax returns, it’s not clear whether Biden wants Congress to pursue them any further. An attorney for the House told a federal judge in January that Democrats were still intent on getting the Treasury Department to turn over the returns to Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.).

Pascrell defended Neal from criticism that he took too long to request the returns when Trump was in office and said he expects the IRS to comply.

“Now that Trump is a private citizen, the courts should not delay what historically has always been a simple process of IRS sharing tax returns with the Congress,” Pascrell said.

Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who was Rettig’s boss until Biden took office Jan. 20, blocked Neal's 2019 demand, which fell under a tax code provision that lets Congress look into otherwise private tax matters. The issue has been tied up in court ever since, and a federal judge recently granted the Biden administration more time to decide how to proceed.

Beyond pressing Rettig again on Trump’s tax returns, Pascrell will push for more answers from the IRS on delayed tax refunds and poorly timed late-payment notices to taxpayers from last year, when the coronavirus pandemic limited the IRS workforce and caused multiple delays, including slow tax return processing.

Agency employees also handled economic relief payments twice last year, and another round is expected this year, along with increases in family and worker tax credits.

“We need to make sure the IRS is up to the task,” Pascrell said.

Hierarchical boundaries reduce Pascrell’s reach, to a degree, on some other issues. He and other Ways and Means subcommittee chairs let Neal know what hearings, markups and investigations they’re planning before publicly scheduling anything, and Neal’s staff is even known to write statements for subcommittee members.

That means outside of IRS issues, Pascrell’s leeway to dig into other matters formally within the Ways and Means’ jurisdiction — like healthcare, Social Security and trade — might be circumscribed. Still, his personality won’t let him fully shy away from trying to widen the scope of what he can examine, said another former congressional aide who requested anonymity to freely speculate on Pascrell’s tack.

Trade issues are particularly front of mind for Pascrell, who didn’t get a chance to lead the trade subcommittee after a couple of years as its ranking member when Democrats were in the minority. He predicted that outcomes from the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement are “not going to be pretty,” and beyond that deal he voiced more general concern about U.S. jobs, trade partners’ labor violations and their enforcement of environmental provisions.

Pascrell also wants to investigate the Trump administration’s Covid-19 responses, which he criticized for political interference and poor planning across the board.

But the various checks on Pascrell leave nuts-and-bolts IRS oversight as his easiest target.

“The IRS is always a good whipping boy, so to speak,” said former Rep. Charles Boustany, who ran the oversight subcommittee when a scandal erupted over the agency's treatment of tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status.

Less political issues are always ripe for IRS oversight, including identity theft, taxpayer rights, agency service, the IRS budget, a shrinking workforce and outdated technology, said Boustany, a Republican from Louisiana. Even examining abuses of the tax-exempt sector can be bipartisan, he said, though his initial look into the tea party issue eventually blew up into political finger pointing.

Pascrell might find fodder in a different tax-exemption matter — disclosure rules softened in the Trump years that have been criticized for letting more dark money into politics, Boustany said.

He also suggested Pascrell could hold joint hearings with other subcommittee chairs on issues in their areas like trade and labor, a sharing arrangement Boustany sometimes agreed to under GOP rules when Republicans held the majority.

“One piece of advice I’d give would be to do a series of deep-dive hearings that could lead to something like legislation,” said Boustany, though since the tea party issue largely overwhelmed his plans, he predicted Pascrell too could find himself consumed by something simply not yet known.

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