For Neal, Where There’s a Will, There May be a Ways & Means…
UPDATED 5:30PM: For grammar and clarity.
Six years ago US Representative Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat, narrowly overcame his colleague Richard Neal’s bid to be Democratic party’s ranking member on the powerful Ways & Means Committee. Levin said Tuesday he was stepping aside, but Neal is not a lock yet. California Rep Xavier Becerra, termed out of his chairmanship of the party caucus, also wants to be the top Dem on the committee.
With Republicans prepping massive plans to rewrite the tax code and possibly dismantle Medicare, the ranking member will be a key part of Democrats efforts to fight back. Moreover, committee’s power—especially in a Democratic majority, however dim the prospects—makes the position attractive on its own with practical and political consequences for Western Massachusetts.
Seniority is a factor, but not decisive. Neal is fifth in seniority on Ways & Means followed by Becerra, but two more senior Democrats, Charles Rangel of New York and James McDermott of Washington state, are retiring this year. Georgia’s John Lewis, also ahead in seniority, is said to be uninterested in the post.
Ways & Means oversees not only taxes, but the principal welfare programs of the federal government Social Security, unemployment, Medicare, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Expansion of Medicaid—which provides healthcare to the poor—is key to Obamacare and Medicare finances cares for seniors. Republicans have campaigned on repealing Obamacare for years and House Speaker Paul Ryan has long dreamed of privatizing Medicare.
Speaking to reporters, Neal expressed confidence he would win the position. “My hunch is I will do very well with members on the Ways and Means Committee,” Neal said according to The Washington Post. “In fact, I would guess I would have a substantial majority.” He also indicated he was better prepared on the subject matter before the committee.
In his letter to members, Becerra said he would be a “strong, experienced, and energetic leader” for the party on Ways & Means. He also mentioned work on defeating a Republican cut to Social Security’s disability program. Notably, preserving Social Security has been a longstanding cause of Neal’s.
Should Neal prevail it would reverberate into the 413. A savvy figure in Congress liked by both parties, Neal already leverages considerable resources and federal attention for his district, which covers Berkshire and Hampden counties and the western fringes of Franklin and Hampshire counties. Becoming ranking member would only augment that power to the region’s benefit.
While a Democratic House remains a distant hope, it is plausible after the 2018 election halfway through real estate tycoon and provocateur Donald Trump’s term. That heightens the possibilities for Neal.
Being the Democratic point man on taxes and the safety net could also raise Neal’s profile in a Washington where he’s better known on the Hill than among the talking head crowd. That could have political implications on the micro level locally as Neal, a former Springfield mayor and city councilor, focuses on Ways & Means more than the tiny political dramas playing out in Springfield and elsewhere.
The Ways & Means race comes amid a leadership contest between minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who has led House Democrats since 2004, and Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan. The Ohioan entered the race after complaints about the party’s failure to resonate in wide swaths of the country. Democrats reps vote Wednesday by secret ballot.
But it is unclear how this affects Becerra and Neal who have few on paper differences.
Less than ten years separate them in age—for comparison Sander Levin, 85, is 18 years Neal’s senior. Neal, elected in 1988, has only served four more years longer than Becerra, class of 1992 (Levin had six years on Neal). Neal is a quiet but influential member of the caucus while Becerra is already in leadership, lending neither to a market on outsiderism.
There could be some impulse to keep a Latino like Becerra in leadership, but Neal also represents a loyally Democratic district that nevertheless shares much with the regions the party lost nationwide.
Few expect Tim Ryan to unseat Pelosi, but the contest has split Democrats even within the Massachusetts delegation of which Neal is the dean. Representatives Katherine Clark and Nikki Tsongas have signaled support for Pelosi. Reps Stephen Lynch and Seth Moulton are backing Ryan. Boston.com described Neal as noncommittal, but he also sympathized with some members’ desire to slow leadership elections. That delay may have given Tim Ryan the space to launch a serious bid.
Success for Neal would also signal he is in no hurry to give up his seat bottling up Western Mass pols looking for a promotion. Conversely, should Becerra win, it might accelerate Neal’s retirement plans, whether that be an appointment under the next Democratic president or not.