Voters in the Massachusetts 1st Congressional District face an important decision on who will be their best advocate in the U.S. House of Representatives in a Sept. 1 Democratic primary that will function as the de facto election. In what has become a heated and bitter race in the final stretch, a senior member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation faces a challenge from his left — a microcosm of an internal Democratic Party power struggle between its populist progressive flank and its more tempered establishment core.
Incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal is defending a decades-long record of representing Western Massachusetts. With more than 30 years of experience in the House, Rep. Neal has represented Berkshire County for the better part of a decade since redistricting in 2012. His tenure has led him to the upper echelons of power within a Democratic House majority, giving the district a resonant voice in the halls of Congress. Since his 2018 reelection, Rep. Neal has taken the chairman's seat on two important panels: the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Joint Committee on Taxation.
Rep. Neal is running on his record and, in a way, his primary opponent is, too. Four-term Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse has fashioned a congressional campaign as insurgent critique, arguing against the incumbent's incrementalism, which he claims is linked to financial backing from corporate and special interests.
What's not arguable, however, is that the 1st District currently has in Rep. Neal one of the most powerful members of the House of Representatives going to bat for it in Washington. When the chips are down in an unprecedented public health and economic crisis, that is an ace in the hole that the district cannot afford to fold. The medley of issues facing Berkshire County has only been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis. From transportation to economic development, the congressman's chairmanships give him the juice that makes for a strong ally to the region in taking on these challenges.
Rep. Neal has made it clear that East-West rail, a massive connection opportunity for the Berkshires and all of Western Massachusetts, is a high-priority project that he has kept in his sights in the event that Congress takes up an infrastructure package, over which the Ways and Means chairman would have significant control. If Democratic nominee Joe Biden is elected president and some version of his massive infrastructure proposal comes to fruition, Rep. Neal's seniority would position him near the head of the table, in turn giving the district a seat at that table and a better chance to see an ambitious federal plan pay dividends for Western Massachusetts.
As COVID-19 has left the economy stricken, federal stimulus and intervention have been and will be crucial in keeping desperate families and households afloat. Rep. Neal had a big hand in crafting the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, the largest economic stimulus package in U.S. history. The legislation included, among other things, expanded unemployment benefits, direct payments to Americans and the Paycheck Protection Program. The latter constituted a lifeline to blindsided small businesses in the Berkshires and beyond, thousands of which were aided by Rep. Neal working to secure forgivable loans. As the anxieties of economic uncertainty linger, more relief packages at the federal level are necessary and likely. The district is advantaged in this regard by Rep. Neal's outsize legislative influence and the potential benefits it could bring to the region.
Mayor Morse's forceful campaign deserves credit, as it has lit a fire under the 31-year incumbent's reelection bid, a challenge the likes of which Rep. Neal has not seen for quite some time. In 2018, the congressman handily defeated his primary opponent by a 40-point margin; Mayor Morse, however, appears to be within striking distance. This owes in part to the fact that, in the challenger's sharp elbows thrown from the congressman's left, some voters in the district find a legitimate critique.
Mayor Morse has voiced full-throated support for progressive campaign hallmarks like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Rep. Neal, meanwhile, has said that he sees the goals of these ambitious efforts as aspirational, but has made clear his preference for more pragmatic approaches that have precluded his support of those programs. As such, he favors expanding the Affordable Care Act over Medicare for All, and is the only member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation who has not come out in favor of the Green New Deal. In a deep-blue stronghold, it's not a stretch to say that the congressman's relatively moderate leanings on such stances perhaps belie a progressive segment of his constituency with which the congressman is somewhat out of step.
Many Berkshires voters have voiced their displeasure with the congressman killing the Lower Health Care Costs Act last year from his Ways and Means chairman's seat. A bipartisan bill with support in both chambers, it would have curbed surprise medical billing costs and required pharmaceutical companies to disclose information about drug price hikes — a measure that arose before the COVID-19 pandemic but now carries increased urgency. Mayor Morse has relentlessly hit the congressman over the size and sources of his war chest, with varying degrees of cogency. Cases like the Lower Health Care Costs Act, though, underscore a crucial question as to how sizable contributions from sectors like big pharma and private equity affect Rep. Neal's use of the considerable power he has amassed on Capitol Hill. The onus is on the congressman to better demonstrate to his constituents that he is beholden to their interests and not his donors.
Nevertheless, Rep. Neal's ample fundraising ability is a testament to his place in the leadership in the Democratic Party writ large. As he readily points out, millions of dollars raised by his campaign have boosted other Democrats in a successful effort to build what he calls a durable House majority, which has served as an important check against the GOP-controlled Senate and White House and would stand poised to move on Democratic efforts to lift the country out from under Trumpism should Mr. Biden win in November.
In his key seat atop the Joint Committee on Taxation, Rep. Neal is also leading an effort to hold Donald Trump accountable by seeking the president's tax returns after Trump broke with a tradition of transparency by not releasing them during his 2016 campaign, and continually refusing to release them despite promises that he would. The congressman is meticulously pursuing this case in an effort to get it done right, pledging that he will press on regardless of the presidential election outcome, knowing that it could have historic precedent for congressional oversight. At this juncture, it would be unwise to eject the joint taxation panel chairman while he's the point person in this battle.
When an incumbent has the kind of power to bring home the bacon to a constituency like Rep. Neal does, the burden of proof falls to the challenger to show why a district should discard such an advantage in high places. Mayor Morse, riding a nascent wave of progressive energy that has shaped other House races, has mounted a formidable primary campaign that has tested a longtime incumbent. But if Rep. Neal is anything, he is indeed tested, and his proven leadership, legislative chops and chairman's seats give the Berkshires a powerful representative in the highest halls of government. The Eagle endorses Rep. Richard Neal for reelection in the 1st Congressional District.