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Rep. Wonk: Erik Paulsen sweats the small stuff

Rep. Erik Paulsen doesn’t shy away from getting into the details of lawmaking.

Don’t look to Rep. Erik Paulsen for big ideas.

It’s not that the Eden Prairie Republican doesn’t have them — for one thing, he’d like to see a fundamental rewrite of the entire tax code — but in a political environment where such sweeping legislation becomes immediately stuck in gridlock, Paulsen has chosen instead to focus on the tiny, the mundane, the overlooked detail.

Since arriving in Washington in 2009, Paulsen, a former Minnesota House Majority Leader and analyst for Target, has carved out a niche within the Republican caucus as a sharp, detail-oriented numbers guy with a knack for producing policy that homes in on specific issues in the tax code and health care.

Paulsen’s wonky approach centers around the idea that there is always something — a small fix to a larger problem — that reasonable people can agree to. In a highly partisan climate where big, comprehensive laws rarely get off the ground, it may be one of the few paths left for actually getting things done in Congress.

Focused bills

As a member of the House Ways and Means Committee — the panel charged with writing tax, health-care, and trade law — Paulsen regularly introduces bills that focus on tax policy or health care. In the first eight months of the 114th Congress, Paulsen introduced 16 bills. (Only Rep. Keith Ellison, with 20, is more prolific.) Eight of them focused on taxation, and four focused on health care. One bill, which proposes repealing the Affordable Care Act’s tax on medical devices, hits both areas.

Here is a sampling of some of the policy Paulsen has proposed this year:

  • The Family Healthcare Flexibility Act, which “repeals the part of [the Affordable Care Act] that sets a $2,500 flexible savings account (FSA) contribution cap and prohibits health savings account and FSA participants from using their own account dollars to purchase over-the-counter medicines without a prescription.”

  • The Private Foundation Excise Tax Simplification Act of 2015, which “amends the Internal Revenue Code to: reduce from 2% to 1% the excise tax rate on the net investment income of tax-exempt private foundations.”

  • The Don’t Tax Our Public Safety Heroes Act, which exempts from income taxation “amounts paid by the Bureau of Justice Assistance as a public safety officer survivor’s benefit or … disability benefit” or by “a state program that provides compensation for surviving dependents of a public safety officer who has died as the direct and proximate result of a personal injury sustained in the line of duty.”

  • The Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act, which lowers excise taxes on craft alcoholic beverages and streamlines regulations and tax filing rules; it staggers decreases in excise tax rates on alcohol so as to benefit the smallest craft producers.

The bills are emblematic of Paulsen’s legislative style: Instead of following the lead of some in the GOP caucus by proposing a repeal of the Affordable Care Act — a pointless exercise that’d eventually meet President Obama’s veto pen — Paulsen prefers to make small adjustments to the law that are more likely to receive bipartisan support. For example, his Family Healthcare Flexibility Act makes health savings accounts, favored by conservatives, slightly more advantageous in the healthcare ecosystem of Obamacare.

Paulsen hasn’t touched comprehensive immigration reform, a goal that many in Congress claim to want, but one that quickly stalls amid partisan rhetoric and electoral politics. Instead, he has targeted one issue, by introducing a bill that would give American-educated foreigners an easier path to securing long-term U.S. visas.

Serving his district

Why has Paulsen chosen to spend his career in Congress taking on very specific issues that most Americans might file under the category of boring, but important? One factor to consider is the makeup of Paulsen’s congressional district. The 3rd District covers Minneapolis’ western suburbs, which are home to some of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the state. Much of the state’s medical-device sector is based in the district, too.

The 3rd District is also somewhat moderate politically. Though it has sent a Republican to Congress for decades, the district voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and the Cook Political Report — which rates the partisan preferences of congressional districts — says it leans only two points in the Republican direction. (Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson’s 7th District, by contrast, leans Republican by five points.)

Considering the 3rd District’s politics, wealth and industries, Paulsen’s approach makes sense. His office says the most common topic of concern that constituents bring up in phone calls is tax reform. Paulsen and his staff say that the majority of their ideas for legislation come from constituents, as well as other groups aware of his reputation in the House.

“When you carve out a niche, then different stakeholders start to come to you and say, hey, what do you think about this?” Paulsen says. He cites the bill to amend private foundation tax rules as an example, saying that foundations in his district and elsewhere came to him explaining their difficulties.

An effective approach

Another influence on Paulsen’s approach is simple: the political environment in which members of Congress operate. Ambitious, far-reaching legislation and reform packages were once common on Capitol Hill, but as the ranks of congressional moderates have hollowed, Congress has seemingly governed from crisis to crisis, passing short-term and stop-gap measures instead of long-term bills.

Like other members from both parties, Paulsen wants comprehensive tax reform legislation passed by both houses and signed by the president — something that hasn’t happened in 30 years, and isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. While Paulsen is publicly optimistic at the prospect, his legislative record shows a more pragmatic approach: Instead of taking on tax reform whole hog, he’s leading the charge to chip away at it with incremental, highly focused legislation.

“If I could wave my magic wand, we’d do comprehensive tax reform,” Paulsen says. But because it’s been “elusive,” he says, “by doing a lot of little things, we build more momentum so we can be more successful on bigger stuff.”

Like most bills, plenty of Paulsen’s haven’t gone anywhere, but he can point to a couple of successes. The Don’t Tax Our Public Safety Heroes Act, introduced earlier this year, made it through Congress and was signed by President Barack Obama. His medical-device tax repeal bill passed the House, and awaits a vote in the Senate. It has stalled before there, but Paulsen is optimistic it will get a yes vote — nearly every member of Minnesota’s House delegation voted for the bill, and Sens. Klobuchar and Franken support repealing the tax (Democrats have criticized Paulsen’s bill for lacking an offset to the lost revenue).

Nerdy by nature

One last thing to consider is that the guy is just a wonk by nature. He doesn’t just care about the minutiae of tax policy, he likes it. Paulsen received a mathematics degree from St. Olaf College, and embraces the “math guy” identity, though he says his daughters make fun of him for it. He says his math background has “given me good analytical skills … not just number crunching, but looking at a problem and trying to solve it.” As a former member and majority leader of the Minnesota House of Representatives, he says he got the opportunity to hone those skills on policy.

It’s tempting to compare Paulsen to another, better-known congressional wonk: Rep. Paul Ryan. While both are lanky Midwesterners, the similarities do extend past the superficial. Ryan is the chair of the Ways and Means Committee upon which Paulsen sits, and both have made names for themselves as economic policymakers — though Ryan, who famously pushed broad budget overhauls, has arguably been more ambitious in scope. Both also got their starts in politics the same way, as congressional staffers: Paulsen worked for his 3rd District predecessor, Rep. Jim Ramstad, and Ryan for former Wisconsin Senator Bob Kasten.

The comparison to Ryan is one Paulsen welcomes. “In many respects, I like to think I’m cut from the same cloth as Ryan,” he says. “What I like about him is that he’s very forward thinking. He knows the chair does well when members of the committee shine.” The praise goes both ways: In a statement, Ryan said, “What I admire most about Erik is his laser-like focus on making good policy. He spends every day trying to help the people of Minnesota, and he’s one of the sharpest minds on our committee.”

Relationship with Democrats

One point of departure between the two, however, is that Ryan — who was Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012 — can sometimes be a partisan lightning rod, while Paulsen has taken pains to avoid controversy. He says he talks with Democrats often, and says “relationships matter … in divided government, you’re never going to get your way 100 percent of the time.”

To that end, when he introduces a bill, Paulsen says he “shops them around … I talk to members and get to know them, and that has created opportunities to work with [Democrats].” Indeed, his office says that over 80 percent of the bills he has sponsored or co-sponsored have also been co-sponsored by Democrats. Paulsen acknowledges this is not a common approach in the GOP caucus. He says there are some members of his party who will wait to vote on a bill or an amendment to make sure that not many Democrats support it. “I don’t think that’s the right approach,” he says.

Paulsen’s efforts at maintaining a pragmatic and bipartisan image haven’t spared him from Democratic criticism, however. Earlier this year, the 3rd District DFL began taking aim at Paulsen, suggesting his “moderate independent” image is an act. In an online post, the DFL cited a list of his votes, such as one in favor of the “Tea Party” Republican budget, in painting a picture of him as a right-winger. The DFL also hammered his advocacy for the medical-device-tax repeal. Though every member of the Minnesota delegation backs the idea to some degree, Paulsen’s bill would not replace the Obamacare funding the tax provides, basically a prerequisite for Democratic support. He has said an offset is unnecessary.

Still, Paulsen is a team player and a good soldier for GOP leadership, and as the party’s center has moved to the right, some moderates and liberals will find plenty not to like in his voting record — for example, on the environment. Paulsen, like much of the Republican caucus, has voted to weaken environmental regulations, and has voted against initiatives to curb greenhouse gas emissions. He has a 17 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters. 

But the legislation he has personally introduced — look no further than to the bill to provide tax relief to the families of fallen or injured firefighters, for example — appeals to a healthy swath of the electorate.

For those issues that aren’t as straightforward, though, Paulsen and his staff acknowledge that messaging can be an uphill battle.

“There are small bills that the average person may never have heard of — kind of wonky, that get in the weeds,” he says of his record. In making his point, Paulsen recalled a coffee group he visited last week at a McDonald’s in his district. “I showed up and there were about 25 people there,” he said. “They were asking me — ‘how come Congress isn’t doing anything?’ I rattle through the little things, and they say, ‘how come we don’t hear about them?’ That can be a constant battle.”

The congressman acknowledges the 24-hour news cycle doesn’t exactly reward politicians like him, who may not grab headlines with big, bold ideas but prefer to quietly advance policy. But he says he doesn’t care. “I’ll continue to be a workhorse. I don’t need to be on cable TV, I just wanna get stuff done.”

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/26/2015 - 11:57 am.

    If only…

    His little idea were actually “good” ideas. If these are his little ideas I shudder to think what his “big” ideas might be?

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 08/26/2015 - 05:00 pm.

      Please be more specific with your critique of his ideas. I am curious?

      • Submitted by jason myron on 08/26/2015 - 08:26 pm.

        That’s too easy.

        Wanted to continue the Bush tax cuts, wants to build nuclear power plants in the state, against public health care, against clean energy, against extending unemployment benefits, opposed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, voted against repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” just to name a few.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 08/27/2015 - 07:43 am.

          Yes it appears he is a moderate member of the GOP and therefore tries to limit government interference in our personal lives and the seizure of our personal wealth. (ie except for that “don’t ask don’t tell” thing)

          By the way, I think many see nuclear as “clean energy”.

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/27/2015 - 09:10 am.


            He’s all about limiting Government in our personal lives… by turning women into second class citizens subject to routine surveillance of their medical records and creating a regime of government enforced pregnancy.

            Meanwhile someone should explain to him the difference between government “seizure”, i.e. law enforcement subject to due process, and “taxation”, the process by which we pay for our government services… and his salary as a Congressman.

            • Submitted by John Appelen on 08/27/2015 - 01:32 pm.


              “government enforced pregnancy”
              Did the government force her to get pregnant? I had not heard of that policy.

              “process by which we pay for our government services”
              I don’t think Conservatives mind paying for government services and politicians. It is the money government seizes by legal means from one group of citizens, so that government can write checks out to other citizens that gives them heart burn.

          • Submitted by Tom Christensen on 08/27/2015 - 09:19 am.

            You gotta love the GOP

            “limit government interference in our personal lives and the seizure of our personal wealth”. It fits perfectly with my belief of the GOP. I listen to the GOP and assume the opposite is the truth. I’ll be right more often than I will be wrong. I guess the GOPs war on women, and minorities is all about not interfering with their lives. The GOP seems to know what is best for everybody as long as it doesn’t cost the fiscally irresponsible GOP anything. The GOP can’t even live within their own means, but that is their guide for everyone else. I guess ten years of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, under the guise of them being the job creators, wasn’t stealing from the middle class.

            I’m still awaiting for anyone in the GOP to tell me who the, single point, GOP leader is. Pawlenty when asked that said, “they have many leaders”. He is right and that is exactly what leads to all the chaos in the GOP. When you have many leaders you don’t have any leaders. The GOP needs a different drum beat because “limit government interference in our personal lives and the seizure of our personal wealth” is phony.

          • Submitted by jason myron on 08/28/2015 - 09:14 pm.

            LOL..yeah, he’s “moderate” all right…

            if you happen to reside in a conservative bubble where up is down and black is white. As for the “many” that think nuclear energy is clean, would that include the former residents of Fukushima and Prypiat??

      • Submitted by Marcia Wattson on 08/27/2015 - 12:20 pm.

        Paulsen as a Moderate

        He may not be the worst of the radicals and science deniers, but he is a pure Grover Norquist no-tax-ever for-any-reason Republican. He can’t repeal/reform the tax structure wholesale, so he chips away at any possible tax cut he can find that will benefit the well-to-do. That is just a slower, steadier way to achieve the same end of destroying our ability to invest in the public good and provide a safety net for those who need help. He is not a moderate in the tradition of Jim Ramstad or Bill Frenzel who preceded him. He does not serve his district well when he calls for a Balanced Budget Amendment, playing into his constituents’ ignorance of the difference between a household budget and the federal government. He is not working in a bipartisan way on gun violence, climate change, women’s reproductive rights, or national security, only on finding ways to cut taxes and spending. He is a solid vote every time for all things obstructionist.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 08/27/2015 - 01:53 pm.

          Same Question Different Graph

          Why do we need more taxes? The government’s percentage of our economy has been growing steadily for a very very long time. That means our personal choice portion has been shrinking. In 30 more years what percentage of our economy do you want the government to control? What do you want your kids or grand kids to personally control?

          Please remember that the GOP let taxes go up on the wealthy instead of allowing the taxes to go up on all of us. People love to complain about the Bush cuts until someone threatens to take them away. I would have let them all lapse in the name of attaining a balanced budget.

          It is a shame that we are not paying down the debt when times are good… It is just us living large and sending the bills to our children and grand children.

          • Submitted by Tom Christensen on 08/27/2015 - 03:17 pm.

            Oh, I get it.

            “Living large and sending the bills to our children and grand children”. You are talking about those who put wars on a credit cards, taking the country to its knees, Pawlenty stealing from education to claim he had balanced the budget, leaving a $6,000,000,000 trail of disaster in his wake, and Scott Walker running a deficit, stealing from education along the way so he could pay for part of his buddy’s stadium. Oh, I get it, they did it all wrong. Well finally I have to agree with you. Thanks for making it all clear.

            • Submitted by John Appelen on 08/27/2015 - 05:33 pm.

              3 Topics Here

              How much of our economy is collected and spent by the politicians? My preferred target is ~33% of GDP. That leaves 67% for citizens to use as they wish.

              Who is taxed to pay that 33%? Currently successful people pay a lot more in taxes to support and care for the citizens who are not successful. Makes sense since they have the money and the poor do not. (ie no getting blood out of a turnip)

              What the politicians choose to spend that 33% on? I am somewhat indifferent as long as they over time stay within their budget and keep America secure. (some deficits / some surpluses) Unfortunately even in these good times they are spending more than they take in and our kids will need to pay for it in one way or another. Keep praying that interest rates stay low. 🙂

  2. Submitted by David Frenkel on 08/26/2015 - 02:10 pm.


    The political reality is with low seniority like Paulsen has you get very little accomplished in Congress. ND is feeling the pinch of loosing their senior US Senator Dorgan to retirement.

  3. Submitted by Mike Downing on 08/30/2015 - 08:30 am.

    Good article!

    Sam Brodey prepared a good article on a good Representative.

    Unfortunately, many of the comments are ideological and emotional in nature with bitterness & anger showing. These negative comments are a perfect illustration of why today’s Democrats can’t work with Republicans, even a moderate Republican like Rep Erik Paulsen.

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