HAYDENVILLE — Rep. Richard Neal recently released his fundraising reports to the Federal Election Commission for his first quarter as chairman of the influential House Ways and Means Committee. His three-month fund-raising haul of more than $520,000 offers a powerful reminder of who really governs our decayed democracy, and a discouraging example of the way politicians like Neal immediately rush to auction their positions to the nation's business elite.
Perhaps it's little surprise. After all, we've come to expect this debased system as politics as usual. Naturally, the largest corporations and industry lobby groups — big banks, insurers, and health care interests, alongside General Electric, Deloitte, Eastman Chemical, and Prudential — lined up with $5,000 checks for the man with significant power over the federal tax code.
It's important to maintain a healthy sense of outrage over pay-to-play politics. But if that seems like merely petty corruption in today's Washington, Neal's latest report provides another frightful look behind the curtain — at the high life members of Congress lead while they raise that money, and how they turn around and spend it on their own high-class travel, dining, and entertainment.
While Neal raised more than a half-million last quarter, and still sits 20 months away from facing voters again, he nevertheless spent over $467,000 from his campaign account during the first three months of 2019. (According to FEC records, he raised, and spent, more money during the quarter than any other member of the Massachusetts delegation; he also spent more money during the 2018 cycle than his colleagues, despite facing no GOP challenger as well as dispatching a first-time candidate in a September primary.) Much of his campaign money went to big-dollar fund-raising events at five-star restaurants, private boxes at sporting events, stays at luxury hotels, premium travel, and more.
In other words: Between January and March 2019, Neal spent hundreds of thousands of dollars wining and dining lobbyists at his fundraisers. In return, he pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars of contributions — many from elite donors with valuable interests before his committee. (One of his first-quarter donors was HR Block. Neal subsequently provided the tax-prep giant with its longtime legislative dream: a prohibition on an IRS free-file system that would undercut their profits.)
Neal rents the private box at the stadium or the table at the gourmet restaurant. Lobbyists buy access to his ear for the evening. Everyone enjoys the game, and the wine flows for free.
In January alone, days after taking the Ways and Means gavel, Neal moved to capitalize on the influential job. He paid the firm Washington Suite Life, which specializes in linking politicos with private boxes at concerts and ball games, $5,937 for an undisclosed event. Neal has previously worked with the Suite Life on boxes for Boston Celtics and Bruins games, as well as a James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt concert. He also spent $5,613.35 at Sixth Engine, a bar close to the Capitol. While we don't have the invite to this reception, this bar is a Neal favorite. In February 2017, according to the invitation posted on the site Politicalpartytime.org, several well-heeled D.C. lawyers and lobbyists hosted a whiskey tasting there to benefit Neal. The price to enter: $2,500 to host, $1,000 to attend and taste. (C&G Associates, a murky D.C. firm with almost zero Internet presence gets $9,000 a month as Neal's fund-raising consultants.)
Also in January: Neal hosted parties at the Dubliner pub in Washington ($4,950.30), Taste in Virginia ($4,686.05), Del Frisco's Double Eagle steak house ($4,478.36), The Salt Line on the Washington waterfront ($3,259.66), and Charlie Palmer Steak ($1,301.40). There was also a $14,000 bash at the Red Lion Inn in the Berkshires, as well as several thousand dollars in travel, lodging, food, and beverage costs billed at Omni Hotels and Resorts in Texas and a Fairmont Hotel in California. In Manhattan, Neal's campaign picked up just under $1,000 for a night at 11 Howard, a hotel that describes itself as "ultra-modern" "casual luxury" "in the heart of SoHo," "where Danish minimalism meets New York realism."
That's just one month. In February, Neal spent over $5,000 on food and drink for an event run by Capitol Host, as well as thousands more at the trendy restaurants Garrison and Lucky Strike, to name just two. March looked like an even wilder cash-collecting orgy. Neal spent $6,630.05 for food, drinks, and lodging at a Florida Ritz-Carlton. It appears to be Fort Lauderdale, because while he was there, Neal's campaign spent hundreds more on smaller meals at Terra Mare, Ocean Prime 57, and the Louie Bossis Ristorant. The man rarely eats a Big Mac.
PAY FOR NEAL'S EAR
But the Ritz-Carlton wasn't even the fanciest hotel that hosted Neal in March. There's a charge for $4,183.28 at the Hay Adams hotel across from the White House, where a one-bedroom suite with a view of 1600 Pennsylvania can go for $2,000 a night. Neal picked up additional four-figure tabs in March at a Library of Congress cafe, Charlie Palmer Steak, and at Bistro Bis across from the Capitol, where Neal has previously held $2,500 breakfast receptions allowing him to collect tens of thousands in campaign contributions over his morning coffee.
Voters sent Neal to Washington to do the people's business. We didn't elect him king of Manhattan boutique hotels or to a never-ending circuit of steak houses, let alone legendary, annual "Boston weekend" fund-raisers, or $5,000 summer gatherings on Cape Cod. If constituents want to talk to him? Sorry, your representative is at a fundraiser at the Ritz-Carlton or a private box at a James Taylor concert. If constituents want his ear on policy? Wealthy folks pay $2,500 for that. And if constituents want to hold him accountable for putting special interests before the public interest? The money helps protect him from a challenge back home.
This is our seat. Richard Neal's living the high life, on someone else's dime. We all pay the cost.
This column is reprinted from The Boston Globe.
David Daley is the author of "Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn't Count" and the forthcoming "Unrigged: How Americans Fought Back, Slayed the Gerrymander and Reinvented Democracy." On Tuesday night he spoke about gerrymandering at the Berkshire Athenaeum in an appearance sponsored by Indivisible Pittsfield.