Pete Sepp started working at the National Taxpayers Union (NTU) in 1988 as a receptionist.
Today — as Congress gears up to overhaul the tax code for the first time in more than 30 years — he’s the group’s president.
The 52-year-old, who became the NTU’s president in 2014, says he still enjoys working there after more than two decades because of the group’s focus on how policies can impact real people.
“There are so many ways to remind policymakers of the human element of taxes and spending and regulations, and so many ways that we are able to make a practical difference rather than debating political theory or waiting for a perfect political situation to come along,” he said.
Sepp jokes that he has junk mail to thank for his job.
When he was looking for work in Washington as a fairly recent college graduate, he was having difficulty finding a position as a congressional aide. Sepp had received a lot of requests for money from groups because he subscribed to political publications, and he decided to send his resume to the groups that asked him for donations. One of those was the NTU.
On one of his first days on the job, Sepp answered a call from a man who said he was going to end his life over an issue with the IRS.
“That was my first clue I wasn’t going to just work with distributional tables and line items and budget,” he said recently at the NTU’s offices near the Capitol.
The NTU serves “as an advocate and a lobbyist for taxpayers and they deserve that representation just as any other group in America does,” he added.
President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpThe speech that could save Trump's presidency Dakota Access protesters burn camp as deadline to leave looms Poll: Over half like ‘SNL’ mocking Trump MORE and congressional Republicans have said they want to make tax reform a top priority next year, meaning it will lead the NTU’s agenda as well.
As the NTU advises lawmakers and staff on the congressional tax-writing committees during the reform process, it will help them figure out how to create legislation with a tax base that is as neutral toward different types of business activity as possible, Sepp said.
He said lawmakers should not start out with the intention of crafting a bill where certain industries would pay higher taxes than others. Instead, he said, members should “start out with the assumption that individuals and businesses with roughly the same amount of income and profit are going to have roughly the same amount of tax.”
The NTU will also be advising lawmakers about how to create a new tax code that is reasonably simple to administer.
“The administrability is a feature too often overlooked in many tax plans,” Sepp said. Lawmakers need to consider how easy it will be for individuals and businesses to understand the new laws and what the changes’ implications would be for the IRS audit process, he said.
Sepp said that it’s important for tax reform to include lower rates, particularly on the corporate side.
“There’s no denying that the statutory [corporate] rate is among the highest in the world and the worst among our industrialized competitors,” he said.
Simplicity in the tax code is critical, Sepp said. To that end, he praised a feature of the House Republicans’ tax-reform blueprint that allows businesses to immediately write off the costs of their capital investments. Under current law, businesses have to write off investments over a number of years using complex depreciation schedules.
“There are many opportunities” for tax reform, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done before legislation is enacted, Sepp said.
While Congress could pass a bill with only Republican votes using a process known as budget reconciliation, it would “be a lot messier, and the result could be a lot more divisive,” Sepp said, emphasizing that he’d rather see reform with bipartisan support.
“Even if we can obtain eight or 10 Democrats in the Senate to co-sponsor or vote for the final tax-reform package, that would make a huge difference in the law’s ability to stand the test of time, and to finally, finally introduce some certainty in the tax system over a horizon of more than a year or two,” he said.
But tax reform is not the only issue the NTU will be working on in the coming year; it also plans to spend time on trade.
The NTU wants “to help rebuild the consensus that free trade and trade agreements are generally good and beneficial things for consumers and workers,” Sepp said.
Trump’s criticism of trade deals was one of his main talking points during the campaign.
Sepp said that “trade unfortunately took a heavy beating in this election season, and it’s one of the things that will require a basic education effort, not only outward-facing but facing toward Congress.”
“There needs to be, I think, a pause on some of the rhetoric, so we can step back and recognize that without free and open trade, our businesses, our consumers and our taxpayers would be suffering,” he added. “It’s not just an us-versus-them mentality.”
Sepp also warned against lawmakers increasing military spending “to imprudent levels, simply because Congress wants to appear to be doing something about our national security posture.”
Other issues that the NTU expects to tackle in the coming year include regulatory reform, entitlement reform and energy policy, he said.
Sepp, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., with his wife, Cecilia, says their two miniature pinschers, named Bismarck and Tazz, help him unwind after days full of financial policy.
“Being able to take the dogs out and watch them bark at cars is a pleasant diversion,” he said.
Others of Sepp’s pastimes include cooking, woodworking, traveling and reading about military history.
“There are just millions of stories, and not all of them are about bloodshed,” he said.
Ryan Alexander — president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which has worked with the NTU on wasteful spending issues — praised Sepp for being a “thoughtful and sincere person.”
“Pete is just remarkably good about being the good guy when he agrees with you, and when he doesn’t agree with you,” Alexander said.
He added that those who have worked with Sepp are loyal to him.
“The people who have worked with Pete feel like he’s a mentor,” Alexander said. And those whom Sepp has worked for “all always want Pete to succeed.”