The ways, and means, of Richard E. Neal
New chairman of powerful Congressional committee a pragmatist who won't be rushed
Even after 30 years on Capitol Hill, U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts awaits his defining moment.
The new House Ways and Means Committee chairman, so familiar to folks here at home, had, until this year, popped up only now and then in national political coverage, picking up steady-Eddie labels like "pro-business" (The Hill) and "institutionally minded" (The New York Times). Like a lot of House members, Neal has worked below the national media radar — and doesn't seem to mind.
When Politico posted an online primer last fall on emerging Democratic power players, 10 House lawmakers in the roundup were tagged. Not Neal.
But in a recent Vanity Fair photo, Neal was climbing the ladder no more. He stood in a wood-paneled room with other ascendant Democrats, arms folded over his chest and wearing a faint smile. And yet as a D.C. celeb, Neal lingered on the bubble. He was identified in the Vanity Fair caption, but not mentioned in the story.
After decades working a narrow crease in American political life, Neal now controls the House panel in charge of taxes, trade, health care and Social Security — after last November's blue wave. It's the committee where the buck starts in Congress, with big consequences for the nation's economic well-being; after more than two decades as a member, Neal now occupies the big chair in the middle of the dais.
Given Neal's new prominence, knowing what he's up to matters to more than voters in the 1st Congressional District, which includes all of the Berkshires.
"It is the most important committee in the Congress," said William Archer, a former Texas Republican congressman who once ran Ways and Means. "It has jurisdiction over some of the biggest things that affect people in the country."
Archer was one of the first people to call to congratulate Neal. Archer said it wasn't until he left Congress that he grasped the influence he wielded as Ways and Means chairman. "I never really knew how much power I had. That was probably a good thing," Archer said, chuckling.
As of this past week, after two months as The Chairman, Neal had overseen seven hearings, tackling issues from infrastructure repair and rising prescription drug prices to trade with China and struggles of the American middle class.
People to Neal's political left are pressing for faster action by his committee to request President Donald Trump's federal income tax returns, perhaps no one more than Tom Steyer, the activist financier bankrolling the Need to Impeach drive. Steyer brings his campaign to the Springfield area Wednesday, hoping to increase pressure on Neal.
Though Neal easily beat a primary challenger in September, progressives are gearing up with a new political group uniting people from around the district who find Neal aloof with constituents and out of step with their goals, as the party shifts to the left.
"The leading edge of the party is moving in that direction and he doesn't seem to be riding that wave," said Drew Herzig, of Pittsfield, a member of his city's Indivisible chapter and human rights activist.
Matt Barron, a political consultant from Chesterfield who was hired to advise Neal's last challenger, Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, sees the lawmaker's caution on the tax returns as foot-dragging.
"He shot his mouth off quite a bit after the election, and now we're getting a lot of excuses," Barron said. "Pick up the pace. Put some effort into it."
As a top Democrat in the House, and dean of the state and New England congressional delegations, Neal should be rallying the party's new energy, Barron said. "It's showing leadership and showing it especially to a lot of freshmen legislators. I don't think he's backstopping them enough."
But Nicole LaChapelle, the mayor of Easthampton and a well-known progressive, is solidly in Neal's corner. She values his understanding of unglamorous issues like new markets tax credits, which benefit her city.
"He literally has always been there for things that I've needed. He gets it, and has a very forthright way about him," LaChapelle said. "He's a very eye-on-the-prize kind of guy. He's long game."
Past may be prologue when it comes to gauging how Neal will handle his new duties — and new pressures. His play? Studiously bipartisan.
Neal is aware of his clout. The day after the Nov. 6 midterms, he walked down a ramp into the sunlit lobby of U.S. District Court in Springfield, a glass and steel building he helped create a decade ago. Neal wanted to tell local reporters what his ascension to the committee's top job meant to him.
"For me, this is a pinnacle of a career achievement," Neal said. "This is it for me. It's been a steep climb."
Given Neal's bookishness, it wasn't a surprise that history was on his mind. It had been 147 years since a lawmaker from Massachusetts led Ways and Means, he pointed out. Now, after 26 years of working his way up in seniority, and eight years after a failed effort to jump the line over former Michigan lawmaker Sander Levin, Neal was thinking of those who had come before.
"When I walk into the Ways and Means Committee, as I have all of these years, I always remind myself James Madison served on this committee," Neal said. "Eight American presidents have served on the Ways and Means Committee. I think that demonstrates the historic responsibility."
Two months later, in a ceremony in the committee's ornate meeting room in the Longworth House Office Building, Neal switched chairs with Kevin Brady, the Texas Republican who led the panel in the 115th Congress.
Neal listed his priorities — help Americans prepare for retirement, lower the cost of medications and health care, create a fair tax system for the middle class and fix the nation's infrastructure. He pledged to hold hearings, mark up bills and work across the aisle.
"I hope that we can do a lot of this work on a bipartisan basis. For any legislation before this committee, I will do my best to first try to find common ground," he said Jan. 24.
At the committee's first full hearing a week later, Neal was still thinking of the moment.
"I take this position, and the history and prestige of this committee, very seriously." Then he dived into the day's topic — pre-existing medical conditions. "These protections mean the world to people — and they're the law of the land."
As the 116th Congress moves deeper into a new Democratic agenda, Neal is steering his committee his way, with decidedly less partisan fervor than the new chiefs of other House panels, and so far with less cable TV news visibility. He prefers CNBC to MSNBC; policy briefs to sound bites. Neal is more reader than ranter. The day after his party retook the House in November, Neal made a point of mentioning his devotion to the Oxford comma.
"I'm nothing if I'm not a member of this institution," Neal said in late January, sitting at the head of a well-polished table in the Ways and Means room off the House chamber, beside an unlit fireplace.
Eight dead presidents watched from their portraits on a long wall. "I have tried very hard to master arcane details. And I always will say what I said to my own children: Check emotions at the door. This is about getting something done."
Andrea Harrington, the Berkshire district attorney, was the next person to sit with Neal that day. They talked about coming from Irish families and being Democrats. He spoke proudly of the history of the committee, and of those past presidents.
"It's very performative," Harrington said of today's politics and campaigns. "He does not get sucked into that. He's more old school."
Neal already was getting pressure from political groups to accelerate steps to obtain Trump's tax returns. Neal had pledged to request the returns the day after the midterms, but is taking what seems to some to be baby steps. He believes it best to prepare a legal case able to weather challenges.
That methodical approach is classic Neal, in keeping with his pragmatism, and his wish, when possible, to balance competing legislative interests.
"I feel very strongly that that is an important part of legislative life," he said of negotiation and compromise. "I know where to drill down. I know where to go forward."
In Neal's view, the race belongs not to the swift, but to bridge-builders.
"You know, when you look back at the big moments in American history, most of them are bipartisan. When you look at, for example, Social Security, Medicare, civil rights, voting rights, open housing, the Wilderness Act — they were bipartisan movements," he said. "People don't understand that when you are abusive to the minority in the process, they're waiting for you when they become a majority."
Archer, the Texan who once led Ways and Means, said he thinks the new chairman will prosper in the role, in part because he listens and values relationships.
"He treats everyone with respect and without a high degree of partisanship," Archer said.
Eugene Dellea, of West Stockbridge, a veteran of scores of Democratic campaigns, said Neal's wish to build alliances illustrates his practicality.
"That's how things get done. If you are on one extreme or another, right or left, it's difficult to come to the middle," said Dellea, a Neal ally who once helped candidates with the last name of Kennedy maneuver Berkshires politics.
While some lawmakers get more media attention, Neal questions their effectiveness in the long run.
"You know, I've watched them come and go. The rock stars. And I've watched those who were famous in the moment. Give me the steady performers," Neal said. "Don't get too excited when it's going well, and don't get too upset when it's going badly. You know — that long view which I've always taken.
"Urban legislators, myself included, tend to focus more on results than on process. And I think the suburban legislators, they tend to be more interested in process."
John S. Baick, a professor of history at Western New England University in Springfield, is a longtime Neal-watcher. Baick describes him as patient, steady and quietly effective.
"He is someone who plays a very long game when it comes to politics. He gets the homework done," Baick said. "He doesn't hunger for the spotlight. This is not someone who wants to be mentioned in a presidential tweet — but it will happen."
"He is the pragmatic wing," Baick continued. "He is not someone who gets pushed or embarrassed."
Matt Szafranski, founder and editor-in-chief of the blog Western Massachusetts Politics & Insight, notes that when Neal met with reporters the day after the election, he seemed to say enough about opposing Trump and about protecting the social welfare safety net to satisfy people on his political left, though the "Medicare-for-all" campaign sits on his agenda below work to safeguard the Affordable Care Act.
Some of Neal's message that day, including a mini-speech on the importance of saving multi-employer pension funds, seemed to Szafranski to be calculated to keep the future chairman out of the line of fire.
"To ward off the werewolves of the right-wing media," Szafranski said, likening talk of pension funds to wolfsbane. "How is that going to rile up that base?"
Time will tell, he suggested, how the low-profile Neal will handle closer scrutiny.
"He's never had this kind of spotlight on him in Washington," Szafranski said.
Neal remains "Richie" to the Western Massachusetts electorate — the former teacher and small-city mayor who grew up relying on Social Security survivor benefits after his parents' deaths.
Given his longevity, he can seem to be a kind of living and breathing piece of infrastructure. He went off to Congress more than a generation ago, in 1988, when George H.W. Bush became president, and for the past quarter century worked his way up the ladder on Ways and Means.
The other day, as Springfield tidied up from a snowstorm, one of his voters sat waiting to catch a bus downtown, on a black metal bench in Ward A1. The ward, home to a complex of eight-story Springfield Housing Authority towers and low-rise public housing, had given Neal his highest vote edge in a primary last September, awarding him 88.7 percent of the vote over Amatul-Wadud, the attorney who came up well short in her first run for office.
"He's always got my support," said a woman in a black jacket as she tugged on her gloves and ran through slush on Sanderson Street for the bus. Others interviewed hadn't heard of him.
Representatives boast of bringing jobs to their districts. Neal did that inadvertently this winter — but issued no news release.
Steyer, the billionaire behind the anti-Trump Need to Impeach, put a team of 25 canvassers, plus a full-time staffer, into Neal's 1st Congressional District this winter. Along with knocking on doors to talk up Need to Impeach, the team asks voters to contact Neal and urge him to get cracking on the request for the president's tax returns. They'll be at it until at least this coming week, when Steyer plans a Wednesday rally at Chez Joseph in Agawam.
Polling in Neal's district by Change Research, paid for by Steyer, suggests that a go-slow approach on Trump's tax returns could hurt Neal. The survey of 813 voters found that 72 percent said they would be less likely to vote for Neal if they see him as reluctant to use his authority on Ways and Means to request Trump's returns. According to the survey, 90 percent of those polled would be less likely to back Neal in 2020 if he opposes impeachment. (The survey had a margin of error of 3 percent.)
Neal has had plenty of time to shape a request, in Steyer's view, and should not be waiting for a report from Robert Mueller, the special counsel.
"I know that it doesn't take three months to do what you're talking about," Steyer said of Neal, in a phone interview from California. He dismisses Neal's claim about being "a man of the institution."
"We're asking Rep. Neal to be a man of the people. His constituents want him to do this," Steyer said. "He should be listening to them. That's our point."
Fellow pragmatists monitoring Neal's approach are ready to give him more time. The Trump administration is expected to fight a request, though presidents have made their returns public since Gerald Ford's administration. A court battle looms.
"It makes sense to want to be sure that you're going to prevail in court," said a D.C. expert on tax policy who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This is a matter that's not been litigated before. A certain degree of caution makes sense."
Neal says the committee's in-house experts are at work on the question of Trump's returns, building a case.
"He wants to ask for these taxes in a boring way," said Baick, the Western New England University professor.
The chairman is more expansive on a different tax issue. Even as ranking member, Neal had to sit on his hands in 2017 as Brady, then the Ways and Means chairman, helped shape the 2017 Trump tax cuts in less than two months' time with no committee hearings.
Though he's not hopeful about getting revisions of the law through the Senate or past a presidential veto, Neal wants to dial back the clock and hold hearings on the 2017 law to get expert views into the record. Who's benefiting from the tax cuts in the measure? Has it spurred job growth and corporate investment, as supporters claimed?
More broadly, advocates of deep reform in the American tax system say Neal, a self-proclaimed "Roosevelt Democrat," is in a position as chairman to make a difference. He could press on economic inequality, they say, and make sure government is raising enough money to provide the programs Neal says he will fight to defend, like Social Security and Medicare.
That's urgent in light of revenues lost through the 2017 tax law, setting up possible "starve the beast" calls from Republicans to cut spending.
Then there's the question of paying for a nationwide infrastructure improvements program, which is catnip to both parties but must be financed. A tweak in the gas tax is a logical element in funding investment in roads and bridges, but is sure to face Republican opposition, setting up one of many tests ahead of Neal's belief in bipartisan answers.
When it comes to defining moments in his career, one is apt to be how Neal handles tax matters with trillion-dollar consequences. As he shows his hand in the year ahead, Democratic candidates for president are sure to be calling for tax reform, raising the stakes for Neal.
"Neal's in a fabulous position to begin to articulate those things and build the case about how you could progressively reform the tax system," the D.C. tax expert said. "A `Roosevelt Democrat' would take on corporations, especially when it comes to taxes. All the things Republicans want to cut are things people want."
Another defining moment could be how closely Neal's committee reviews recent changes in the North American Free Trade Agreement, which it must approve. Neal speaks often of his working relationship with Robert E. Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative. He invited Lighthizer to speak to the committee about U.S.-China trade at a hearing Feb. 27.
Neal gets decent marks on trade issues from other Democrats, though some say his support of free trade has cost jobs in Massachusetts. Businesses in Massachusetts, and elsewhere, are nervous about tariffs imposed or threatened by the Trump administration. Associated Industries of Massachusetts wrote to Lighthizer in September, asking him to back away from new tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods, saying the step would endanger their supply chains and step up competition from competitors overseas.
Neal can be sentimental about the times before social media. To an age when it wasn't a sin to have friends across the aisle.
"It pains me because we can't have these conversations any more," he said. "A congressional career can't be just about clicks."
Being a "man of the institution," for Neal, is in part an embrace of collegial relationships and the "regular order" of building a patient case for a new law.
On Feb. 12, in a show of that spirit, he and Brady, the ranking member, called jointly for reductions in the cost of prescription drugs.
Neal has been burned, including being shut out from debate on the 2017 tax law. But he hasn't given up. When he makes speeches, he's trying to persuade, eager to pick up support wherever it lies.
"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," he 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 email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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