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Staff director of super-committee in Congress comes well trained

Mark Prater comes out of progressive Republican politics in Oregon, and he learned his dealmaking skills from a master, Sen. Bob Packwood.

Mark Prater, the highly praised choice to head the staff of the congressional “super-committee” on deficit reduction, has Northwest roots and is a protégé of former Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood (R), who hired him in 1990 as tax counsel to Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee.

Packwood, still regarded as one of Washington’s most-knowledgeable sources on taxation, orchestrated a nearly unanimous tax-reform measure in 1986, when he chaired Senate Finance, and was always a senator willing to work across the aisles on major legislation. It is this ability that Prater brings to the table as well, according to most reactions to his appointment by co-chairs Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas).

“Mark is a superb choice,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who replaced Packwood in the Senate. “He has a proven record of working for bipartisan solutions and his expertise on tax issues is unsurpassed among Congressional staff. Mark’s selection is an encouraging signal that the committee is serious about finding common ground and will consider tax reform as a component of its deficit reduction package,” Wyden commented to the Willamette University College of Law, where Prater received a law degree in 1984. Packwood is a graduate of Willamette, with a law degree from New York University.

Prater, a native of Portland, practiced law in the city briefly before moving to Washington to specialize in tax law. When he joined Packwood in 1990, the Oregon senator was at the peak of his power in the capital, as ranking Republican on Senate Finance. Packwood had chaired the committee when Republicans controlled the Senate, and in 1986 managed to pull together major tax-reform legislation that passed his committee unanimously and got 97 votes in the 100-member Senate.

Earlier this year, Packwood, who divides his time between a lucrative lobbying practice in Washington and a home in Portland, told The Oregonian’s Steve Duin that the key was quiet bipartisan meetings of committee leaders, while the public drama played out in front of cameras.

“While those committee meetings were high theater,” Packwood told Duin, “the true wheeling and dealing occurred behind closed doors. The standard deduction was increased, preferential treatment for capital gains eliminated. The deduction for state and local taxes ended, the corporate tax rate lowered. All of this," Packwood noted, "we're doing in the back room. We're not doing this in the daylight at all. People are willing to give things up for the good of the country if they're not going to be hauled over the rack right away."

By the time Prater arrived as Packwood’s minority tax counsel, the 1986 deal was still the talk of Washington. Later, much of it would unravel, as lobbyists moved in to restore loopholes, but the measure is still cited as an example of how Congress can work if it will. But the history doubtless had an impact on Prater, who was later involved in key negotiations for tax measures in 1997 and also the Bush tax cuts of 2001.

Prater has always served Republicans, but like many veterans of Capitol Hill has ultimately been known as a man of the Congress. Like state capitols across the nation, the nation’s capitol has a coterie of veteran staffers who ride out partisan shifts on the payroll of influential committees who need their expertise and institutional memory to function. Members of Congress from both parties (and journalists) learn who is reliable and who owes too much to a partisan appointment. Prater fits the former mold.

“The selection of GOP Finance Committee staffer Mark Prater, a 20-year Hill veteran, represents an early moment of bipartisan consensus,” Politico commented. “Republicans and Democrats alike cheered Prater’s selection, with his Finance Committee boss commending his intellect and work ethic while Democrats talked up Prater’s history of reaching across the aisle.”

The reaction to Prater’s appointment presages actual work of the super-committee, but it does give Murray and Hensarling a moment of favorable media notice before the knives come out. While Prater is a GOP staffer, he is certainly not of the Tea Party mode, and strong Democratic praise for his work gives the committee at least some breathing room to begin.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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