Neal reaches career 'pinnacle' as command of top congressional committee looms

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SPRINGFIELD — Saying his whole career led him for this moment, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal on Wednesday pledged that, under his leadership, a powerful House committee will fight to preserve the Affordable Care Act, defend social welfare benefits from cuts and keep the Trump White House accountable to Congress.

"I will be unyielding in defense of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid," Neal said at the U.S. District Court in Springfield, the day after midterm elections that will return his Democratic Party to power in the House of Representatives.

"We're back, I think, to broadening the path for a Democratic majority," said Neal, the former Springfield mayor who represents Berkshire County and Western Massachusetts in the House.

An interview with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, conducted by Larry Parnass of The Berkshire Eagle.

"For me, this is a pinnacle of career achievement. And I fully intend to exercise the responsibilities of chairman of arguably the most important committee in Congress, and certainly within the House of Representatives," Neal said. "Congress has a constitutional responsibility to oversee the executive."

When he is elevated to control of the House Ways and Means Committee, as is expected in January, based on his 26 years of service on the panel, Neal would be the first Massachusetts politician to lead it since 1871.

Party's gains

But Neal's focus Wednesday was his party's gains this week. The lawmaker ticked off successes in House races Tuesday, which included surprise wins in typically red states like Oklahoma and Kansas. Republicans retained their majority in the Senate.

By regaining control of the House, Democrats are in a position to frame the national debate leading in to the presidential contest in two years, Neal said. "If we do this right, we're going to set the table for the 2020 election."

How Americans obtain and pay for health care and health insurance will feature prominently on that table.

"It's pretty clear that the most important issue last night was the issue of health care," Neal said of the election. "And I want to say that at the Ways and Means Committee, that will be the priority issue that we bring up — ensuring and defending the idea that people who are born with an ailment are not wrongfully treated. We intend to enshrine the principle of pre-existing condition as a guarantee of our national network," he said. "The clear message from last night was, fix the Affordable Care Act."

Also in the realm of health, Neal said he wants to work to reduce the cost of prescription drugs.

In other areas, the congressman said he hopes to use his clout at the helm of the committee to pursue a major investment in roads, bridges, airports, sewers and broadband internet access, noting that attention to neglected infrastructure was one of President Donald Trump's campaign pledges in 2016.

"I hope that there will be room to negotiate with the administration (on) a major infrastructure bill," Neal said. "I also think that there's an opportunity and an obligation here to strengthen retirement savings."

But Neal's committee also will embrace an adversarial role, given the party's wins Tuesday. Neal said his panel mightdouble back on financial decisions made in recent years under Republican control. That might include efforts to obtain President Donald Trump's federal income tax returns and to re-examine aspects of last December's major tax overhaul.

Neal acknowledged, though, that since Democrats control only "one-half of one-third of the federal government," the party is not in a position to revamp last year's tax overhaul. His math counts Republican control of the executive and judicial branches.

Minutes before Neal came down a ramp and into the modern courthouse's glass lobby, Trump said at a news conference in Washington that he would consider working with the Ways and Means Committee on a measure to reduce taxes on the middle class.

From the sidelines

As that committee's ranking Democrat during the previous session, Neal watched from the political sidelines as the biggest tax bill in a generation was written and passed in 51 days without being subjected to a single hearing.

Neal expressed a willingness to work with the president, but noted that tax relief for the middle class might have been achieved if Congress had observed "regular order" by taking expert testimony at hearings. It also might have avoided a ballooning of the federal budget deficit.

"We could have come to that conclusion," Neal said, referring to the issue of middle-class cuts.

With his party now steering the committee, Neal said he would want the White House, when it comes to tax relief, "to make some accommodation — for example on the top individual rate." He was referring to a possible increase in taxes on the wealthiest Americans, those who benefited most from last year's cuts.

"There are some opportunities here for cooperation, and I intend fully to hold hearings on their tax bill — and to hold the hearings that weren't held the last time," Neal said. "I think that that's important as well. And you know what? Let's have in some people of great economic reputation, Democrat and Republican, to talk about the tax bill.

"I'm mindful of a Senate majority. I'm mindful of a presidential veto. But I also think that it's within our jurisdiction to hold some hearings on it, because it has sowed a lot of confusion," he said.

On another crucial financial issue — trade and tariffs — Neal said his committee plans to assert itself, particularly with regard to the North American Free Trade Agreement that the Trump administration recently revised with Mexico and is discussing with Canada.

"I also think that, before you know it, a renegotiated NAFTA will be in front of the Ways and Means Committee," he said. "We should embrace ... making trade work for all members of the American family."

Neal said he will endeavor, as the election fades into memory, to find common ground with lawmakers across the aisle.

"I think that part of what came through last night as well was the tone of the national conversation," he said. "I hope that, given my institutional memory, not only on the Ways and Means Committee but in fact as a member of the House for all these years, that I do recall a time when we actually found that good faith to work with each other."

But behind the scenes, Neal also helped cultivate his party's emerging candidate lineup, in part by coaching newcomers on ways to address issues and on how to avoid being "back footed" by opponents. He said he raised or gave over $5 million to help new Democratic candidates.

`Steep climb'

On a personal level, Neal said his elevation to control of a top congressional committee calls upon his affection for policy, history and debate.

"It's been a steep climb. And pretty remarkable, when you consider that it's been 147 years since you've had a chairman of the Ways and Means Committee from Massachusetts," he said.

"I've never had the reputation as being a slouch when it came to debate," he said. "I'm still interested in American history, and I think that that equips us for the many challenges we have every single day."

Legislative work happens away from TV cameras and doesn't advance through sound bites, he said.

"I've earned the respect of Republicans and Democrats in Congress. None of them would ever walk away from a discussion or debate with me saying he doesn't know what he's talking about, even if they disagree," Neal said. "I think that when you say things, they should count. More and more these modern campaigns are built around 10-second responses. You can't do government around 10-second responses."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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