The Richie Neal Moment in the House of Representatives…
WASHINGTON—One day in October, the House Ways & Means Committee chairman, Springfield Congressman Richard Neal, exited a stately conference room in the Capitol. A swarm of Capitol Hill scribes were waiting, buzzing him with questions about impeachment, Donald Trump’s tax returns and pending legislation. A staffer walked ahead, recording exchanges for quote accuracy.
Aside from Ireland matters or a hit on CNBC to nerd out on tax policy, such a sudden scrum around Neal would be unthinkable a few years ago.
Then, last week, Neal stood solemnly with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she and impeachment chairs announced the articles being filed against Trump. Within the hour, Pelosi, Neal and a phalanx of Democrats were describing the deal with the administration to update the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“I can’t tell you how much time this takes,” Neal had said in October. That was after 10 months of negotiations since Democrats took the House.
“So that means interacting with colleagues, people on the other side of the aisle, and the United States Trade Representative, and Speaker of the House regularly,” he continued, noting international travel, too. “It takes a lot of time.”
It’s Gonna Take Patience and Time
Over 30 years in Washington, Neal accumulated a subtle measure of power. Meanwhile, he was patiently rising in the Ways & Means Committee, which sets tax, trade, welfare, Social Security and healthcare policy. After becoming ranking member in 2017, his visibility exploded.
Democratic House control handed Neal his Committee’s gavel, responsibility and scrutiny. Critics have blasted legislation from Neal’s committee and his handling of the quest for Trump’s tax forms. That helped fuel Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse’s primary challenge.
Much of that centers on an alleged coziness with big business, like Neal’s brief remarks at an event—which he did not organize—for AIG, the bailed-out insurer.
Reps told WMP&I they appreciate his perspective and advice. Aides for lawmakers interested in Ireland issues say Neal was a frequent and welcome guest in their offices. Among the Massachusetts delegation, Neal’s seniority is an asset.
“He takes the Dean of the delegation role very seriously,” freshman Lowell congresswoman Lori Trahan said. “The Dean of the delegation sort of helps facilitate all that, making sure that we’re making those linkages and that we’re working together,” she continued.
Trahan knew Neal from her time as chief of staff to former rep Martin Meehan. “I think historically the delegation has worked as a team and that’s kind of what I observed when I was an aide here.”
Rosa DeLauro, a senior progressive Democratic Rep from New Haven, praised Neal’s chairmanship.
“In particular, I appreciate his commitment to a comprehensive, national paid family and medical leave program,” she said in a statement.
Perhaps critically, he has Pelosi’s support. Capitol Hill denizens say the two speak frequently, often multiple times a day, about policy, legislation and politics.
In a statement to WMP&I, Pelosi said Neal’s “tireless voice and values-based leadership” has benefited people in Massachusetts and beyond.
“Every day, Chairman Neal demonstrates a clarity of purpose and dedication to our bedrock principles of justice, equality and opportunity that honors the vision of our founders and the aspirations of our children,” she continued. “With the gavel, Chairman Neal is ensuring that our Caucus continues to honor our responsibility to the Constitution and the American people as we deliver results that strengthen the health and financial security of every family.”
It’s For Real
Most House-passed bills, including several from Ways & Means, end up in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s legislative graveyard. Still, Neal’s committee has been busy churning out bills that promote renewable energy, reform IRS policies, ease prescription drug costs, equalize the tax code’s treatment of LGBTQ people and address a brewing multi-employer pension crisis.
In an interview with WMP&I in the Capitol, Neal acknowledged some have panned his decisions and actions. Yet, he argued that America’s shrinking media emphasizes conflict rather than “substantive accomplishments.”
“Unlike many today that have come along, I’m interested in the details of legislation,” Neal said. “I know when you say things like let’s expand the earned income tax credit (EITC), that is unlikely to draw an invite from cable news.”
It would improve lives and it might pass the Republican Senate, he argued. That approach has its fans in the House.
“You can often see Rich sitting on the floor, and people from outside of the Ways and Means Committee will come over and seek his advice because they’ve seen his approach to legislation on and off the floor,” said Representative John Larson, a Ways & Means Democrat who represents Hartford.
“Regular order!” Larson said, summing up Neal’s chairmanship. “When I mention this to my family they go ‘What do you want Metamucil?’” Rather, Larson was referring to following and using the committee process, which itself might ease congressional constipation.
To Do It Right
Another example was the Butch Lewis Act, which passed the House in July. It would help preserve multi-employer pension plans for workers employed across several companies, as Teamsters are. A system failure could bankrupt the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, a federal pension backstop.
“The collapse of some of the multi-employer pension plans across the country, they are not based on fraud, malfeasance or misbehavior,” Neal said. Rather, market forces like mergers and shrinkage of payrolls relative to retirees has strained the system.
Butch-Lewis, Neal said, would give Treasury tools and time to rehabilitate the plans and create a solution that avoids a bailout.
In October, Neal hoped the bill would pass by year’s end, but the Senate released its proposal just this month. In other retirement-related matters, Neal and Larson said they expect legislation to bolster Social Security to come up next year.
Neal revels in the details. While the conception of him as an old-school urban pol is not wrong, it doesn’t get at his professorial roots. Throughout the interview he dropped stats about pension plans and tax rates as a percentage of GDP.
Aides say they continue to schedule time for Neal to catch up on reading, despite increased demands on his time.
“He’s a prolific reader,” Larson said. “I don’t know if many people know that about him, but I’ve never seen him on a plane when he doesn’t have papers transcripts, or more often than not books.”
And This Time
That wonky bent has not necessarily endeared him to progressives.
Among House Democrats that criticism is muted. During a visit to Northampton, Ro Khanna, the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s Vice-Chairman told WMP&I Neal was available to listen.
“He always comes to the Progressive Caucus and exchanges ideas and has been welcoming of the EITC bill,” Khanna said. “My understanding is he has been welcoming of having a hearing on Medicare for All. So, he has been accessible. I’m hopeful these progressive policies will move.”
Outside the building, progressives see Neal as an impediment. There is rolling critique of Neal’s speed and tactics to obtain Trump’s taxes. (Neal insists he is following House Counsel’s advice).
“I said I thought we were in for a long and grinding court case,” Neal said recalling an interview with The Washington Post not long after the 2018 election. “I was never naive enough to think the President was going to FedEx the Ways & Means committee his tax forms.”
Neal had requested the returns under Section 6103(f) a Jazz Age-era law passed after the Teapot Dome Scandal. The Treasury Department and IRS must comply, but they flatly refused. After trading letters and subpoenas to build a record, Neal sued.
Hill aides, speaking anonymously to be candid, said Neal’s approach—listen to the lawyers—made sense. However, better communication about the law and legal strategy could have helped reps explain the case to constituents eager to see the presidential 1040s.
The case remains pending.
The Feelings Republicans Feel
His Republican counterpart, Ranking Member Kevin Brady of Texas, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but they have cooperated. Neal cited the Butch Lewis Act and IRS reforms as examples and Committee press releases document more.
When they sharply disagree, as on Trump’s tax returns, Brady has aimed his criticism at Democrats generally.
“The Democrats’ partisan, flawed lawsuit continues their unprecedented and illegitimate pursuit to expose President Trump’s private tax information,” Brady said in a statement after Neal sued Treasury to turn over Trump’s tax returns. Brady invoked Pelosi, but Neal.
This approach mirrored Neal’s during the 2017 tax bill debate. While opposing the bill, Neal said he told Brady, “It’ll be vigorous, but not rude.” After, Neal said, he focused on a successful public effort to save new market and historic tax credits, both key program in his district. He still voted against the legislation.
Set on Western Mass?
As Neal’s own reelection looms, how his new position helps Western Mass will be central. Neal points to those tax credits that survived the GOP bill and fund projects in the Berkshires and, pointedly, Holyoke.
Neal has emphasized the leverage the chairmanship affords. Last week, he touted language in the defense bill that delayed a ban of Chinese-made railcars, like those manufactured at CRRC in Springfield.
Another example are improvements to rail service to New Haven and the rail study to Boston, which he urged Governor Charlie Baker to fund.
Larson noted Ways & Means will oversee financing for transportation improvements. Recently, Transportation Committee chair Peter DeFazio recently visited Connecticut with Neal, hearing from Hartford area employers about needed work at Bradley and along Amtrak.
“Well, it’s great the transportation chairman is there, but how does that get funded?” the Connecticut Democrat said. “And why didn’t the republicans come up with an infrastructure plan? Because they didn’t have a finance plan.”
Trahan noted that Neal’s position in leadership, alongside Reps Katherine Clark and Jim McGovern amplifies Massachusetts’ influence on legislation.
Whether it goes through Ways & Means or not, she said, “Everything that we’ve done up until now, I think, you can find congressman Neal’s fingerprints on it.”
Put My Mind to It
Neal’s biggest project of late has been the NAFTA update. In interviews over the years, Neal has suggested he and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer have been able to work together, if not always perfectly.
— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) December 10, 2019
With #USMCA, Democrats secured improvements aimed at enhancing North America’s economic competitiveness and advancing the United States, Mexico, & Canada’s collective work to empower workers, protect patients’ access to affordable health care, and improve our shared environment. pic.twitter.com/xTPxEcV8if
— Rep. Richard Neal (@RepRichardNeal) December 10, 2019
“These were intense, argumentative, angry negotiations,” Neal said at Tuesday’s announcement. “I think we set a world record for hanging up on each other, myself and the trade rep.” But they made a deal.
Lighthizer’s office did not return a request for comment.
Reaction to the agreement has varied across the Democratic caucus, but the AFL-CIO backs the changes as do key labor allies like Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. Republicans are muttering about the agreement under their breath. A House vote could come this week. Senate action may not come until 2020.
The most significant changes toughen compliance with labor standards. There are environmental improvements, but many only remove loopholes in Trump’s original text. Also stripped from Trump’s original deal are giveaways to the pharmaceutical industry.
DeLauro, who had been overseeing enforcement in House trade negotiations, has not committed to the revised NAFTA. However, she told the CT Mirror it moved in the right direction, echoing an assessment of Neal’s efforts last month.
“Due to [Neal’s] strong leadership on trade, we have continued to make progress towards a renegotiated NAFTA that protects American workers, the environment, and keeps drug prices from going up through giveaways to the pharmaceutical industry,” she told WMP&I in a statement.
Still, with historically anti-trade deal pols like Brown against it—Neal himself opposed NAFTA in 1994—the deal’s chances are good.
But It’s Gonna Take…
The evening he spoke to WMP&I on Capitol Hill, Irish-American Democrats and Irish politicos and diplomats were throwing a party. Though not a particularly Hibernian time of year, they rolled out a full spread Irish grub and plenty of green. Several stories up, in the International Laborers Union’s headquarters, not far from the White House, Neal was set to receive a lifetime achievement award.
The timing was perfect. With the United Kingdom careening toward Brexit, many there were worried about the impact on the Good Friday Peace Accords. Ireland will remain in the European Union, but Northern Ireland will leave with the rest of the UK.
As it happened, the non-Irish Pelosi was presenting Neal with his award. She took the opportunity to assure the House would approve no UK trade deal that disrupts peace accords.
“There won’t be any trade agreement if they violate the Good Friday agreement,” she told reporters that night.
A special night for Irish American Democrat’s as we salute our friend, Chairman Richie Neal with our Lifetime Achievement Award and recommit ourselves to protecting the Good Friday Agreement! pic.twitter.com/9f4xS8tqk4
— Irish American Dems (@IrishDems) October 17, 2019
Neal had figured prominently in Congress’s efforts to press for peace. According to RTE, he had said that week reviving the border would “bring back the bad old days.”
In remarks after receiving the Irish Dems award, Neal called the accords “sacrosanct.” He added, “In no circumstances could it be abandoned to the Brexiteers.”
After Boris Johnson’s win in last week’s British elections, a UK trade deal could be next. With NAFTA seemingly wrapped, Neal’s next international assignment awaits.