Lobbyists looking to influence the congressional “super committee” — and who have done their homework — already know a few things about Mark Prater, the recently chosen staff director of the powerful deficit-reduction panel.
They know he’s a hockey fan. That he’s incredibly busy. And that he has a reputation for body checking weak or politically infeasible ideas.
Prater has served more than two decades as an aide to Senate Finance Committee Republicans. As the staff director for the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, the top staff position on the panel, he will play a key role in developing the committee’s recommendations on how to find at least $1.2 trillion in savings over the next 10 years.
This will make him a prime lobbying target.
When Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) in August named Prater to the post, the committee co-chairs said they picked “a workhorse who members of both parties have relied on.”
Lobbyists said the members of Congress also chose a top-notch professional who has listened to their cases. Patrick Heck, a K&L Gates partner and former tax counsel for Senate Finance Committee Democrats, said Prater is “always very responsive and accessible.” But getting his ear might not bring the desired response. “I think the one thing you can say about him is he is a straight shooter,” Heck said. “He tells it as it is.”
Hogan Lovells partner Robert Glennon, a 35-year veteran of tax lobbying, said lobbyists meeting with Prater should “be extremely well prepared on both the substance and the pros and cons” of their cases. “He’ll ask hard questions on both the substance and the politics to fulfill his role as an adviser to the members,” Glennon wrote in an e-mail. “He takes his job very seriously and does it well.”
The tax lawyer was involved in several major bills during the past 20 years. His name surfaces in the Congressional Record in debates on numerous issues, including health care reform and the George W. Bush-era tax cuts. “He’s seen it all,” said Roderick DeArment, a co-chairman of Covington & Burling’s government affairs practice. “He’s done it all.”
Venable of counsel Christopher Condeluci, a former tax and benefits counsel for Senate Finance Committee Republicans, said Prater’s work on the estate tax stands out. The 2001 Bush tax cuts initiated a 10-year phase-out of the inheritance tax. Condeluci said Prater listened to the different sides on the estate tax debate and tried to draw up proposals that were supported by all. “Mark just kind of navigated the war over that conversation,” Condeluci said.
That kind of meticulous care has won him wide respect in the Senate. Republican Senate Finance Committee members released glowing statements following Prater’s appointment, many noting an ability to work with senators on both sides of the aisle. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Finance Committee Republican, said for example that Prater, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has “an encyclopedic knowledge, intellect and leadership make him a natural fit for this position.”
More surprisingly, Democrats were if anything even more effusive in their praise. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a super committee member, called the selection “a very good one,” saying his current and former colleagues on the Senate Finance Committee “all know Mark Prater for his knowledge, expertise and fairness.” Fellow Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.) said Prater “is a superb choice.”
Prater, 52, had contact with tax law at an early age — his father was an accountant. That exposure laid the path that brought him to Portland State University, where he received an undergraduate accounting degree in 1981. He went on to receive a degree from Willamette University College of Law in 1984 and a master of laws degree in taxation from the University of Florida in 1987. He joined the Oregon and Washington state bars in 1984 and became a certified public account two years later.
Prater didn’t go to D.C. immediately following graduate school. He worked at the financial services advisory firm of Touche Ross (now Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu) from 1984 to 1986 and then with law firm of Dunn Carney Allen Higgins & Tongue in Portland, Ore., from 1987 to 1990.
In 1990, the tax lawyer came to Capitol Hill to become a congressional staffer. He hasn’t looked back since.
Prater has spent his entire career in Washington working for Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee. He started as a tax counsel, but after three years he was promoted to chief tax counsel, a position he held until his appointment as super committee staff director. Prater also was the deputy staff director to the Finance Committee Republicans from 2007 until he received his super committee post.
Along the way, he also married a congressional staffer. Lori Prater is currently an aide to Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) “I figured I would be there about two years, but the bug kind of bites you,” Prater said in a 2005 alumni profile for Willamette University. “You have a chance to participate in making policy and advising on ideas, on molding them into law. That’s a great opportunity.”
Lobbyists said Prater’s experience on the Finance Committee will suit him well on the super committee as it works to finish a deficit reduction plan by Thanksgiving.
The 12-member panel is already busy, holding a public meeting and two open hearings this month and engaging in intensive work behind closed doors. With little free time, lobbyists said they’ll need to pick their spots carefully when considering approaching him.
Said Heck, the K&L Gates partner: “You want to respect the job he has and the time he has to do it.”
Andrew Ramonas can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.