The congressional lame-duck session of 2012 could comprise some of the most critical weeks for tax policy in recent years. As lawmakers work to address the sequestration spending cuts and the sunset of many tax provisions, including the Bush-era 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, tax lobbyists are preparing their clients for the so-called fiscal cliff and a possible 2013 tax reform effort.
Tax Analysts recently polled more than a dozen current and former congressional tax staff members and lobbyists to find the top five tax lobbyists in Washington. Those on the list have a deep understanding of tax policy and the political acumen to communicate client issues on Capitol Hill. They appear below in alphabetical order.
Nicholas P. Giordano, Washington Council Ernst & Young
Nicholas Giordano has keen political instincts and a thorough understanding of tax policy, a combination that makes him one of Washington's top tax lobbyists, according to those who know him.
"Nick is the consummate tax professional," said Lori Prater, tax counsel for House Ways and Means Committee member Jim Gerlach, R-Pa. "As a former Finance Committee staffer, he understands the interplay between tax policy and the real politics of Washington. To properly advise clients, you need to have an understanding of both."
Giordano's knowledge of the code comes from practical experience. Before entering public life in 1993, Giordano spent eight years in private practice, where he used his background as an accountant and lawyer to advise clients.
Giordano's political expertise comes from serving on Capitol Hill. In 1993 he was the legislative director and tax counsel for Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus, D-Mont. In 1997 Giordano became chief tax counsel to the Finance Committee, a position he held until 1999.
As chief tax counsel, Giordano gained valuable insight into how Washington works. When developing legislation, he worked with Senate leaders, the House, the Joint Committee on Taxation, and the White House. He saw how a bill is constructed and how different sides approach different issues.
Asked about being named one of Washington's top tax lobbyists, Giordano credited those he works with. "It is not just me," he said. "I am the beneficiary of a lot of talented people who work here."
Giordano said the fate of expiring tax provisions will depend partly on election results and that most likely only some items will be renewed.
The client list for Washington Council Ernst & Young includes Barclays, Microsoft Corp., New York Life Insurance Co., and Pfizer Inc.
Lindsay D. Hooper and Jonathan Talisman, Capitol Tax Partners LLP
Capitol Tax Partners LLP runs on the simple model of gathering political experience and technical tax knowledge under one roof in order to lobby the tax world. Over the last decade, the firm has gained a reputation for its ability to bring those two sides of the equation together to see tax issues develop from the legislative to the regulatory stage. At the firm's helm are Lindsay Hooper and Jonathan Talisman.
"The thing that sort of prompted us to form Capitol Tax was this desire to marry political assets with technical assets, which really hadn't been done before," Hooper told Tax Analysts. According to the Center for Responsive Politics' Opensecrets.org, Hooper worked for former Senate Finance Committee member Malcolm Wallop and left Palmetto Group in 2001 to found Capitol Tax with Talisman, a Treasury assistant secretary for tax policy during the Clinton administration.
"It's really important when you go to the Hill to have credibility," Talisman told Tax Analysts. "You have to sort of understand your client's issues from a technical standpoint and a political standpoint and put it into context."
Capitol Tax Partners had $11.2 million in lobbying income for 2011, putting it 20th among the largest firms, according to Opensecrets.org. Its reported 2012 income to date is nearly $5.3 million, and the firm's list of clients includes Altria Group Inc., Apple Inc., General Electric Co., and Capital One Financial Corp. Its workload ranges from wind energy tax issues to the tax treatment of foreign-source income.
Hooper and Talisman are quick to attribute the firm's success to its staff, but individually the two have gained reputations for their technical expertise, exacting preparation, and political savvy.
Hooper "really has his finger on the pulse of tax legislation," a former Republican Senate aide said. Hooper understands when and how to get a client's tax provision included in legislation and often goes beyond the typical tax lobbyist's preparation before meeting with congressional staff members, the former aide said.
Talisman's technical skills and understanding of tax policy likewise win high praise. Anne Urban of the lobbying firm Urban and Swirski Associates LLC said Talisman is one of the most talented people in the tax community.
As the November election approaches, Hooper and Talisman are preparing clients for the fiscal cliff and tax reform. While clients weigh how certain tax proposals may affect their tax positions, it's the lobbyist's role to help prepare the economic and policy arguments for and against those changes.
"When you have the opportunity to educate members and staff and you know what the issues are likely to be, then you take those opportunities," Hooper said.
Kenneth J. Kies, Federal Policy Group
A chance encounter early in life set Ken Kies on a course that would bring him to Washington and introduce him to tax policy.
Kies said in an interview that one summer during high school, he got to know former Ways and Means member Guy Vander Jagt and his wife, Carol Ann, while building their house. After his first year of law school, Kies came to Washington to work for Vander Jagt, and that summer he got his first taste of working on tax policy. In 1975 the House was working on what became the Tax Reform Act of 1976, and Kies saw firsthand how tax legislation develops.
Kies's ability to translate complex tax jargon into ordinary English makes him a trusted source among top Republicans. His knowledge of the legislative process paid dividends when he returned to Washington in 1981. After President Reagan was elected, Kies joined the Ways and Means staff, and from 1982 to 1987 he served as chief Republican tax counsel to the committee. One of the most important things Kies learned from his time there was how to draft legislation.
"If you ask me about most tax issues, I can tell you what the answer probably is, because you learn to know how the drafters think," he said.
Kies left Capitol Hill in 1987 to return to private practice. From 1995 to 1998, he served as chief of staff for the JCT, where he learned the importance of revenue estimates. Kies said that knowing how estimates work is critical when working within the constraints of revenue neutrality, which will likely be a requirement for tax reform.
Kies is managing partner of the Federal Policy Group, whose clients include General Electric Co., the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, and Hess Corp.
Shahira Knight, Fidelity Investments
Although relatively new to tax lobbying, Shahira Knight has already made an impression on Capitol Hill. Former and current staffers listed her understanding of complex tax issues and the relationships she has quickly built as the reasons she is among the top tax lobbyists.
Knight, who served as a senior adviser to former Ways and Means Chair William M. Thomas, joined C2 Group LLC in 2006 and the Securities Industry and Market Association in 2007 before becoming vice president of government relations for Fidelity in 2009.
One current congressional staff member called Knight "dangerously smart" and said she is well liked by both parties. Knight has been able to acquire a firm grasp of the tax issues that matter to the financial sector and to educate members and their staffs about them, the staffer said.
According to lobbying reports filed for 2012, Knight worked on several tax issues for Fidelity, including tax reform, healthcare savings accounts, and expiring temporary tax provisions. She has also lobbied on tax issues related to donor-advised funds for the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund.
In an e-mail to Tax Analysts, Knight cited two attributes she admired in lobbyists she encountered during her time with Ways and Means and said she has tried to cultivate them in her own lobbying work.
"First and foremost, I think most successful lobbyists -- particularly on tax issues -- led with sound policy arguments and had at least some basic understanding of their issues," Knight said. "Second, there are usually at least two sides to an issue, and I always appreciated lobbyists who were straightforward about presenting all sides."
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