WASHINGTON — The clout of Massachusetts lawmakers may be near its lowest ebb. The state’s two senators have less combined seniority than any pair in the country. The House delegation, possibly the nation’s most liberal, holds even less sway within a chamber dominated by conservative Republicans.
Yet Representative Richard E. Neal, little known outside his base in Springfield, said he has a plan to protect the state’s interests in Congress as he prepares later this month to assume the role of delegation “dean,” a title given to the state’s longest tenured House member.
Neal, 64, vowed a return to the days of J. Joseph Moakley, the late South Boston Democrat known for enforcing unity in the delegation and consolidating the group’s power by guiding younger congressmen into key committee posts and meeting regularly to coordinate goals. Neal said the state’s economic drivers — health care, higher education, and technology — have to be the delegation’s shared priority.
“One of the things we want to do, clearly, is to make sure that the rest of Congress, America, understands the role that these industries play,” Neal said in an interview this week.
As lawmakers attempt to rewrite the tax code, Neal said, it will be crucial for the state’s delegation to stick together to make sure key industries are not hurt.
And he has already called an emergency meeting at which delegation members discussed waging a fight to preserve a bonus in Medicare payments to the state’s hospitals worth $250 million a year. Critics from other states argue that what they call the “Bay State Boondoggle” gives Massachusetts hospitals an unfair advantage over those in other states. Neal and other members of the delegation say the payments are justified and necessary to preserve some of the nation’s top medical facilities.
Neal will become dean as soon as Edward J. Markey, who held the post for a dozen years, is sworn into the US Senate to replace Secretary of State John F. Kerry later this month. Markey, despite nearly 37 years of experience in the House, will become the state’s junior senator, last in seniority among 100 in the upper chamber.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, who took office in January, is also near the bottom, a stark contrast in influence with the recent past when Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy occupied those positions.
Markey was the last in the House delegation to serve with Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. in the 1970s and 1980s.
Neal, by contrast, brings an agenda to the deanship that he takes seriously, even if many of the duties — making dinner reservations for the delegation at Hunan Dynasty, for example, and welcoming state dignitaries — seem more administrative than magisterial.
Neal, a former history teacher who reveres congressional lore, spoke nostalgically in an interview about the state’s prestigious legacy of long-tenured House members that includes two former speakers of the House, O’Neill and John W. McCormack, as well as Moakley, who served in the House from 1973 through 2001 and as dean for more than a decade.
“It certainly has a great tradition in Massachusetts and it’s well recognized by custom and I think there’s been a pretty celebrated group of individuals who have held the position,” Neal said.
To some in the state’s all-Democratic delegation, the dominance of Republicans in the House makes leadership critical.
“Being in the minority is not fun, but to be effective, you have to stick together,” said Representative James P. McGovern, a Worcester Democrat who will now rank second in seniority among state House members and who received his political training as an aide to Moakley. “You need to have a plan. You need to anticipate what the opposition might do that would end up hurting your state.”
But Republicans said the delegation suffers from its strict adherence to Democratic Party dogma.
“I don’t think the Massachusetts delegation has done a good job of reaching across party lines to solve problems,” said Ian Prior, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Unless Richie Neal is willing to do that, then he’s not going to be any more successful than Markey was.”
Neal is clearly relishing the role, planning monthly meetings, lobbying Nancy Pelosi, minority leader, about committee assignments for Markey’s eventual replacement in the House, and promising to seek help from Obama administration officials with ties to Massachusetts.
After Markey joins the Senate, the state will lack representation on two of the House’s most powerful panels: Appropriations, and Energy and Commerce committees. The latter panel writes regulations also affecting the environment, telecommunications, and health care.
Neal said Pelosi would not commit to appointing Markey’s replacement — expected to be elected this fall — to a particular committee such as Energy and Commerce. She urged patience, Neal said, telling him the request could be fulfilled after the 2014 congressional elections.
Neal, despite nearly a quarter century in the House, is not known to many outside of Springfield, where he served on the city council and as mayor from 1978 through 1989.
He was sworn into Congress in 1989, replacing Representative Edward Boland. He has often chosen to bore into the details of tax policy rather than seeking publicity.
“These are issues that might not be glitzy every day, but boy are they important and I’ve spent a career trying to pay attention to this stuff,” Neal said.
Three years ago, when Democrats controlled the House, Neal nearly became chairman of the powerful Ways and Means committee, which writes the nation’s tax policy. But he lost a close contest to Representative Sander Levin, 81, of Michigan.
Neal is also a voracious student of state politics at the precinct level and has been a player in helping Markey and Warren gain support in Western Massachusetts during their recent elections.
He said he has no aspiration for higher office, which should help him keep the peace with his colleagues, who have sometimes battled about positioning, especially when Kerry ran for president in 2004 and it appeared as though his seat in the Senate might be available.
Neal reads several newspapers, sitting at a table outside a Capitol Hill coffee shop every day where he often greets Speaker John Boehner, the Republican whom he befriended two decades ago when both men played in a nightly congressional basketball game.
Representative Michael E. Capuano said he is not sure the delegation needs to meet more often for meals, given that members often get together on the House floor. But he is happy to give Neal’s initiative a try “as long as he’s paying.”