Last week, local leaders gathered in Springfield to announce a long-awaited $51 million project to transform an abandoned downtown hotel into new apartments, shops, and restaurant space. One after another, they stepped and gave credit to Rep. Richard Neal for using his voice — both publicly and behind the scenes — during deliberations over the 2017 tax cut bill to persuade the then-Republican-controlled House Committee on Ways and Means not to repeal a relatively obscure tax credit for renovating and restoring historic properties.
If not for Neal’s efforts, “we would not be here today,” real estate developer Peter Picknelly said during the event.
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker — who minutes earlier made a rare cross-partisan endorsement of the Democratic congressman’s reelection campaign — echoed those words, both in person and on Twitter, writing that Neal had been a “powerful voice” for both the 1st District and the entire state.
While the event was unrelated to Neal’s campaign, the subtext was hard to ignore: Now the chairman of Ways and Means committee, Neal’s perch in Congress gives Massachusetts an influential hand in federal legislating — one the state could potentially lose Tuesday.
Recent polls have shown Neal’s primary challenger, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, within striking distance, after a politically motivated smear by the longtime Western Massachusetts congressman’s supporters backfired and progressive groups doubled down on their efforts to elect the 31-year-old mayor.
For his part, Morse doesn’t contest the fact that Neal has power. He does, however, question how the 71-year-old Springfield native is wielding it.
“What’s the point of having institutional power, if we’re not going to use it to help the people and communities of the 1st District?” Morse said during a debate earlier this month. “Instead, Congressman Neal has been using his power to benefit the wealthy, the well connected, and the corporations that have invested millions of dollars in his campaign.”
According to the Neal campaign, the 2017 tax credit fight is just one small example of how the congressman has used his position to benefit Massachusetts families.
At the same time, Morse and his supporters argue that Neal — whose Ways and Means Committee has domain over bills involving taxes, trade, and programs like Social Security and Medicare — serves as a barrier to the more transformational reforms that they want to see passed if Democrats take back the Senate and White House. Even if a hypothetical President Joe Biden isn’t likely to enshrine Medicare for All or a Green New Deal — both of which Morse supports and Neal does not —into law, progressives argue that getting the Ways and Means gavel to someone else would still make a significant difference.
“It sure as hell matters,” Ezra Levin, the co-founder of Indivisible, a national progressive advocacy group backing Morse in the race, told Boston.com in a recent interview.
“Richie Neal knows how Washington works, but Alex Morse wants to change how Washington works.”
While he acknowledges that being Ways and Means chair, powerful as it may be, doesn’t make one “king of tax policy” or welfare programs, Levin says the position is one of the major power centers in the Capitol when if comes to crafting bills.
Noting that a Biden administration is likely to prioritize some sort of COVID-19 pandemic recovery plan, Levin points to how Neal rejected a “Paycheck Guarantee” program that progressives wanted to be included in the House’s last coronavirus bill. He also points out how Neal “squashed” progressive amendments to a Democratic prescription drug bill last year.
Morse has also accused Neal of derailing a deal to address surprise medical billing, which he tied to the fact that the Ways and Means chair has accepted more corporate PAC donations than any other member of Congress this election cycle. (Even before becoming chair, Neal stood out for the amount of pharmaceutical industry contributions he received.)
“Richie Neal knows how Washington works, but Alex Morse wants to change how Washington works,” the Morse campaign said in a statement Sunday.
If Neal does lose, the Democrat next in line to be Ways and Means chair is Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett, an Austin progressive who has clashed with his Bay State counterpart over the aforementioned prescription drug bill and suing for President Donald Trump’s tax returns. Levin, a former Doggett policy staffer, says that, compared to Neal, there is “no one more categorically different” than Neal on the otherwise relatively business-friendly committee.
Doggett has especially trained his focus on reigning in Big Pharma; one progressive lobbyist recently told Roll Call that having him in charge of Ways and Means would amount to a “sea change.”
The Morse campaign has tied the possibility of a Doggett chairmanship into their campaign pitch, arguing that a victory Tuesday wouldn’t only “send a message to Washington that voters are demanding real systemic change.”
“It will also put a true progressive in charge of the Ways and Means Committee to help bring about that change,” their statement said.
That said, the line of succession — usually based on seniority but potentially subject to an intra-party vote — isn’t set in stone.
“It is going to be a fight,” Levin said, adding that he would expect the business community to push another Ways and Means committee member to challenge for the chair (the reverse dynamic played out on the Energy and Commerce Committee in 2008, when California Rep. Henry Waxman successfully challenged a more senior Democrat perceived to be more industry friendly).
But a fight over the Ways and Means gavel would have even higher stakes.
“It’s hard for me to point to a more important fight than the chair of the Ways and Means committee headed into a Democratic trifecta,” Levin said. “So it’ll be a sign of what’s to come in a Biden administration.”
“We don’t need to create a hypothetical here; all we need to do is look at some of Richie Neal’s signature accomplishments.”
Neal’s team contends that he has a record of “sweeping change” himself, from helping to write the Affordable Care Act, to a recent bill to promote renewable energy and increase efficiency through tax incentives, to the broader bill passed in the House last year to lower the costs of prescription drugs. Kate Norton, a spokeswoman for the campaign, said that “no one has done more to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid than Richie Neal.”
“Richie Neal has done heavy lifting on most of the economic issues that disproportionately affect women, like expanding the child and dependent care tax credit, making the earned income tax credit more generous, and ensuring that more workforce development programs offer services that support working parents,” Norton said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also hailed Neal as the “maestro” of last year’s renegotiated North American free trade deal, which won overwhelming bipartisan support despite some criticisms from the left.
At the local level, Norton called Neal “the driver behind New Markets Tax Credits, which have brought to the district hundreds of billions in economic development funds, thousands of construction jobs, and thousands of permanent jobs.” She also pointed to his work to secure FEMA Grants for the 1st District and establish the region’s first recycling center.
“We don’t need to create a hypothetical here; all we need to do is look at some of Richie Neal’s signature accomplishments to understand his impact on Central and Western Massachusetts,” Norton said.
Local supporters say the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are even more reason to keep Neal in office.
“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 editorial board of the Berkshire Eagle wrote in its endorsement of Neal. “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.”
While Morse has said he would have voted against the CARES Act based on the reasoning that it didn’t provide enough relief to those affected by the coronavirus, Neal has touted his work on the legislation, which funneled millions of dollars in funding to Western Massachusetts hospitals.
But compared to the Appropriations Committee, where members deal more directly with local funding, Levin says the home state of the Ways and Means chair is not as relevant (i.e. changing federal marginal tax rates has the same impact everywhere). So from his perspective, Levin says replacing Neal with someone with fewer ties to big business would be beneficial to Bay Staters, and also the rest of the country.
“It’s pretty clear that folks in Massachusetts — as well as folks in Texas and folks in California and elsewhere — would benefit from having somebody who isn’t taking tons of money from pharma,” Levin said.
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