What Jason Smith’s Ways and Means chairmanship win means for Missouri and public policy
U.S. Rep. Jason Smith is used to being underestimated.
The Salem Republican was the underdog when he first ran for the Missouri House in the mid-2000s. He wasn’t seen as a top-tier contender for Congress when the 8th Congressional District became open in 2013. And, as he explained in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, national prognosticators wrote him off when he jumped into the race to become House Ways and Means Committee chairman.
“I remember Punchbowl having a new story saying that Vern Buchanan was a foregone conclusion to be the Ways and Means chairman,” said Smith, referring to an online publication that follows congressional politics. “And even though people said I couldn't do it, I knew I was setting out a plan and working hard and just placing one brick after another — it could pay off. And that's just how I've always done anything.”
Smith ended up defying conventional wisdom this week when his colleagues made him chairman of the powerful committee. Ways and Means oversees massive public policy initiatives, including changes to the tax code and trade policies. And as the youngest person to ever assume the chairmanship at 42, Smith will be one of the most powerful lawmakers in Congress.
Whether he’s able to wield that power in a meaningful way over the next two years is an open question. Republicans don’t have an overwhelming majority in the U.S. House and have no control over the Senate or the White House. That means any significant policy change will need bipartisan buy-in.
“If anything is really going to happen, especially since 60% of all mandatory spending is under the House Ways and Means Committee, it has to go with working through us,” Smith said. “So I think there's gonna be some real opportunity for some things to be done.”
Boon for the 8th District?
One of the ways Smith campaigned for the Ways and Means Committee post was emphasizing his socioeconomic roots in Dent County.
Smith noted that he didn’t have running water on his farm near Salem until he drilled for it while he was in law school. He also said he lived for most of his life in a single-wide trailer before “upgrading to a double-wide.”
“I wanted to make sure everyone knew where I come from and the values that I believe in. And you look at the 8th Congressional District of Missouri,” Smith said. “It's the 24th poorest congressional district in the nation. But it's the sixth most conservative in the nation. So by definition, we are working-class Americans. And that was exactly what I was trying to portray … is that Republicans are the party of the working class.”
He emphasized the focus on his economically difficult upbringing was not meant as a subtle criticism of Buchanan, who is one of the wealthiest members of Congress.
“It wasn't anything about my main competition,” Smith said. “It was making sure that if I had the opportunity to serve as chairman, people would know the vision and the direction that I want to continue to move our country and our party when it comes to economic policies.”
It’s an open question whether Smith’s rise through the House hierarchy could lead to tangible results for the state and the 8th Congressional District. It’s especially pertinent after the departure of Sen. Roy Blunt, who won plaudits from both parties for steering money to all corners of the state.
While emphasizing he’s not trying to emulate political leaders like Blunt or former Sen. Kit Bond who were adept at bringing money back to the state, Smith did say he wanted to use his position of power to benefit his district and Missouri.
“It's the opportunity to make sure that because of where you're at, you can make huge, huge gains for things that you care about,” Smith said. “And there's nothing that I care more about than my home. And that's Missouri.”
Eye on IRS
One of the first initiatives of the new GOP Congress was to pass legislation defunding $80 billion over a number of years to the Internal Revenue Service. That was part of the Inflation Reduction Act, and proponents of the move contend it's aimed at bolstering the agency’s technology and going after wealthy people who are evading taxes.
But Smith and other Republicans contend that money for the IRS is an overreach that could end up harming people who are not “millionaires and billionaires.” While the legislation doesn’t have much chance of making it to President Joe Biden’s desk, Smith said it was still an important priority for the GOP House.
“Speaker McCarthy made it a point early on during the campaign cycle that this would be the first resolution that we passed off the House floor,” Smith said.
Smith has also been critical of the House Democratic decision to release former President Donald Trump’s tax returns. He said that including returns from years when he wasn’t in office set a bad precedent.
“And it's absolutely uncharted territory,” Smith said. “They've definitely created a new precedent. That is not a good place to be.”
A hobbled agenda?
Working with Democrats may be the only way Smith can achieve some of his agenda.
That’s because Republicans have only a slim majority in the U.S. House and don’t control the Senate or the White House. And last week’s drawn-out effort to elect a speaker showcased fissures within the House GOP.
Smith said people should expect “aggressive oversight” over the Biden administration. But he’s also reached out to White House officials and Democratic members of the Senate about ways to work together.
“I think that we can accomplish a lot of things for our country,” Smith said.
One of the issues that could fall under that category is restructuring the child tax credit.
Under the American Rescue Plan, families that qualified for the tax credit received monthly deposits in their bank accounts. But that program expired at the end of 2021. And there’s been a lot of disagreement between the parties about whether to restart the program with more specific work requirements.
Democrats have contended that making the work requirements more stringent could complicate efforts for eligible people to get the benefits of the child tax credit. Republicans like Smith counter that not having a work requirement provides a disincentive for people to reenter the workforce.
But despite the differences in approach, Smith said it’s possible that the child tax credit could be an area of cooperation between the two parties.
“I do think we can find common ground in some different areas,” Smith said. “And this may be one of them.”