Is there even much of a point to being a member of Congress anymore, if you're nominally committed to public service? Probably not, and now Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) has decided to consciously uncouple himself from his 23-year career in the House of Representatives.
According to reports broken nearly simultaneously by The Washington Post and Politico, Camp has elected to not seek reelection in 2014, becoming the fourth high-profile Michigan lawmaker (along with Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) as well as Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.)) to opt-out of continuing their careers in Washington. The Post reports that "Camp’s retirement was expected by many inside the Capitol" -- expectations that became salient Monday morning after Politico noted that Camp had not yet filed for reelection. Camp, the chair of the House Ways And Means Committee, was not eligible to return to that post in the next Congress, owing to House Republican Caucus term limits for committee chairs.
Camp said he will spend the remainder of this 113th Congress on efforts to “grow our economy and expand opportunity for every American by fixing our broken tax code, permanently solving physician payments for seniors, strengthening the social safety net and finding new markets for U.S. goods and services.”
Well, good luck with that. In 2010, Camp vowed to take up tax reform as his life's work, proclaiming in a speech before the Tax Council, "I aim to launch and fight the tax reform battle once again. And I am well aware that this might ruffle those who have used the tax code to benefit particular industries or activities at the expense of economic efficiency, simplicity, and fairness."
It wasn't cheap talk. Back when Elyse Siegel and I profiled the incoming House Republican chairs, we identified Camp as a policy hound with a yen for bipartisan brokerage amid a sea of ideologues and ironic choices. The Wall Street Journal, describing him as a "dealmaker," noted that his background as a legislator from a "beleaguered and traditional Democratic state" made him ideal to lead the way on across-the-aisle compromises. Slate's Dave Weigel profiled Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), already lining up to break bread with the Michigander, optimistic that they might accomplish a breakthrough on tax reform.
Camp completed his life's work in late-February, presenting a tax reform proposal that revived faded memories of a more functional period of American policycraft. Bloomberg Businessweek called it "a serious proposal for the first significant reform of the tax code since 1986, with ideas drawn from both Republican and Democrats." Salon's Alex Pareene termed it "shockingly non-awful." Jonathan Chait was full of compliments both for the ambition of Camp's proposal and Camp's own hard work:
The tax-reform proposal unveiled yesterday by Dave Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, does something remarkable: It actually reforms the tax code. It doesn’t use the pretense of reform to shift the tax burden off the rich, as Republican “tax reform” plans usually do, and it does not use hand-waving to gesture in the direction of reform without following through. Camp has actually plunged his hands into the guts of the tax code and pulled out item after item. It may be the most impressive and ambitious domestic policy proposal crafted by a major Republican in a generation.
Camp had made good on his vow. Politico reported that Camp told reporters, "I'm not satisfied with waiting ... I'm not going to settle for two percent growth and median incomes declining and more kids living with their parents. I want to see growth, I want to see jobs, I want to see higher incomes -- tax reform can raise that."
Problem is, tax reform, in the eyes of both his Republican colleagues and Democratic opponents, raised problems. As Joshua Green reported at Bloomberg Businessweek:
As Politico notes, most Republicans are aghast that one of their own would introduce legislation that wasn’t simply a messaging gimmick for the midterm election. Most Democrats cynically regard Camp’s proposal as attack-ad fodder. “Frankly, I don’t understand the politics of it,” Democratic Representative Jim McDermott of Washington told Politico. “He knows it’s not going anywhere, but it will be used” against Republicans. “The question will be: Do you support Dave Camp’s bill?”
Opposition to Camp's proposal had all the makings of a Beltway cynicism sundae, and then -- as Politico reported -- came the cherry:
Rep. Dave Camp’s tax proposal — which jacked up taxes on banks and threatens the bottom line of some major private equity players in New York — has infuriated donors in high finance.
Private equity and investment firms in New York are telling key Republican players in D.C. that commitments for big-dollar fundraising have been “canceled for the foreseeable future,” according to one GOP lobbyist with knowledge of the conversations.
Lobbyists for Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan and others are meeting privately with lawmakers to explain what the bank tax would cost and how it would function.
Big banks want to turn Republicans against the bank tax. The situation puts the party at risk of seeing a reliable source of campaign cash dry up right in the middle of a critical election year.
With his fellow congresscritters declaring Camp's bill dead on arrival and Wall Street's donors holding firm against any misrule that might trouble their near-hegemonic hold on policymaking, Camp's decision to peace out with his dignity intact makes a lot more sense than signing up for another two-year slog.
Camp will join a slew of other retiring lawmakers, from both sides of the aisle, some of whom had actually voiced frustrations. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) opted to leave Congress because of frustrations with the slow pace of promised change and insufficient filibuster reform. Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), is choosing to bail rather than spend more time in the mire of Congress' "perpetual stalemate." The retiring Rep. Dingell perhaps put it best during a floor speech denouncing the most recent government shutdown: “The American people could get better government out of monkey island in the local zoo." While true, it raises serious questions as to why Dingell would sit back and let his wife attempt to join this not-so-August body.
Dave Camp will basically leave behind a House of Representatives that's good at naming post offices, repeatedly defunding a non-existent anti-poverty organization, and pouting. He will probably be replaced by someone who can barely handle these tasks.
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