WASHINGTON — It was as if the mild-mannered backbench congressman from Buffalo stripped off his boxy pinstriped suit to reveal a silver spandex shirt with a big blue "D" on it as he as he suddenly became … SuperDemocrat!
Raising his voice to nearly a shout, Rep. Brian Higgins last week summed up his party's argument against the Republican tax cut plan as the House Ways and Means Committee finished its work on the measure.
"The White House Council of Economic Advisers had the audacity to suggest that these corporate tax cuts would result in a $4,000 to $9,000 annual increase" in income in Middle America, Higgins said. "... Another boldfaced lie by this White House perpetrated against the American people."
Hearing this, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady banged his gavel.
"The gentleman will suspend," the Texas Republican drawled. "You're over the guardrails on decorum in this committee."
Over the guardrails or not, Higgins kept on driving.
"This benefits wealthy people and and wealthy corporations at the expense of Middle America," he concluded.
Obviously, Higgins isn't a backbencher anymore. After a dozen years in Congress focused largely on what he could do to boost his hometown, Higgins finds himself in a leadership role on the House committee that writes tax law, oversees trade issues and works to improve Social Security and Medicare.
And he's not alone. Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican, has served on the Ways and Means Committee for six years. Together Higgins and Reed give Western New York two members on the House's most powerful committee for the first time in memory.
Reed took a prominent role in last week's tax debate, too, but it was Higgins' breakout moment.
It happened because Higgins finally earned enough seniority to rejoin the committee — and because Democratic committee members immediately voted to make him "vice ranking member," a new leadership position that charges him with crafting the party's message on issues before the panel.
Democrats created those new leadership positions on all committees to inject some fresh blood into their hierarchy.
“With our new vice ranking members, House Democrats are harnessing the great and dynamic leadership of our members at every level,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in announcing the new positions.
Circumstances dictated that it took a long time for Higgins, 58, to ascend to his party's new generation of leadership.
He first joined the Ways and Means Committee in 2009, but Democrats lost so many seats in the 2010 election that he got bumped off the committee. So Higgins toiled away on other panels and on what he still calls his central mission: boosting Buffalo and its waterfront.
But he had several friends in high places on Ways and Means, most notably Rep. Joe Crowley of Queens, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, and Rep. John Lewis, the revered civil rights hero from Georgia.
"They're always looking after me," Higgins said.
So once a Democratic opening surfaced on the committee, Higgins won it — along with a leadership role.
Now Higgins finds himself taking on some of the nation's biggest issues. On health care, he introduced a bill that would allow anyone older than 50 who needs health care to buy into Medicare. He later proposed another bill that would open up Medicare to all Americans.
And on the tax bill last week, he met with his Democratic committee colleagues before and after each committee session, crafting a series of amendments that aimed to correct what they see as the committee's worst flaws.
One of Higgins' amendments, which he introduced with a lawmaker from New Jersey, would have restored the state and local tax deduction that will be curtailed by 71 percent under the House GOP tax bill.
Another Higgins amendment, co-sponsored by two other committee Democrats, would have restored the historic preservation tax credits that the bill strips away — which, Higgins said, have been key to downtown Buffalo's revival.
A third Higgins amendment would have suspended the bill's business tax cuts unless the Republicans' promise of wage growth for all Americans actually came true.
All those amendments failed, as Democrats suspected they would.
"A lot of these amendments were designed to make a larger point," Higgins said in an interview. "The increase they talk about in wages could be obliterated by other things in the same bill."
Reed made a point of his own — that Republicans believe their simpler tax code will mean more jobs and higher wages.
For Reed, co-chairman of the House Problem Solvers Caucus and one of the driving forces behind a compromise that cut but didn't eliminate the "SALT" deduction, the most dramatic moments came on the first day of the four-day tax bill mark-up.
Piled two feet high to Reed's right was the current tax code. In front of him was its proposed replacement, an inch or so thick.
"I am not going to live with this any longer," Reed said, pointing at the massive existing tax code. "I am not going to let these 70,000 pages of code sit here and saddle my people back home day in and day out with a code that's broken for the American people. I am not going to watch our American industries go overseas because of our broken tax code anymore."
Higgins, who is on friendly terms with Reed, said he wasn't surprised that his colleague played a prominent role in selling the bill to the public.
"Tom's influence is growing in the Republican Conference," Higgins said. "This committee has the potential to catapult you."
The Ways and Means Committee works on so many major issues that its members frequently find themselves in the national spotlight. Three former committee chairmen — Buffalo's own Millard Fillmore, James Polk and William McKinley — went on to be serve as president.
Then again, former chairman Dan Rostenkowski ended up in federal prison, and former chairman Wilbur Mills saw his career collapse after two drunken public scenes involving Argentinean stripper Fanne Foxe.
Ways and Means
Along with doing some of the most important nuts-and-bolts legislating in the House, the Ways and Means Committee also serves as a stage where the two parties make their points about tax issues.
After Reed did so last week, Higgins was not to be outdone. Again and again throughout the markup, he returned to the same point.
"This tax bill is a major liability to every taxpaying American but for the top 1 percent," he said in another impassioned speech on the first day of the mark-up.
Buffalonians may not be used to seeing the bookish, soft-spoken Higgins get so riled up, but he said there are reasons for it. For one thing, he said, the tax issue is so important that it will affect everyone in his district.
For another, "the level of importance of this committee just raises your enthusiasm for the work you're doing. ... You're at the epicenter of everything that happens in Congress," Higgins said.
And if being at the epicenter means that Higgins has to raise his voice, so be it — even if it means an occasional reprimand from the committee chairman.
Reflecting on his heated remarks from last Thursday, Higgins said: "I think that shook them out of their comfort zone a little bit."