ADAMS — It was a good afternoon to be Representative Richard Neal.
Standing near the highest point in Massachusetts under sunny October skies, the fall colors resplendent on the Berkshires around him, Neal was viewing construction on an outdoor recreation center that was made possible in part by federal money he secured. It was one stop of many in a tour of his Western Massachusetts district to tout the earmarks he’d landed for it, and he was sure to mention his powerful perch as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee frequently in remarks along the way.
But if Republicans take control of the House in Tuesday’s midterm elections, as many polls indicate, Neal’s job may grow much less enjoyable and definitely less powerful.
Massachusetts’ all-Democratic congressional delegation, chock full of major Washington players, could face the same fate, particularly if the Senate also flips to GOP control. Neal and several others would lose their perches chairing committees and subcommittees, forfeiting much of their ability to shape legislation.
Such a shift, which can come with the added indignity of less opulent offices and a smaller staff, often prompts veteran members of Congress to retire. But Neal and others in the state’s delegation show no signs they plan to leave if the election doesn’t go the Democrats’ way.
The 73-year-old Neal, who has served since 1989, couldn’t keep a twinkle out of his eye when asked about Republican leader Kevin McCarthy’s stated plans to fight Democrats for spending cuts that could include entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, if he becomes House speaker next year.
“Thrilled at the prospect,” Neal said grinning, noting that such a battle helped Democrats win the House majority in 2006. “Happy to engage them again on that issue.”
Neal and Representative Jim McGovern of Worcester hold powerful gavels. The tax-writing Ways and Means Committee has a role in most meaningful legislation and McGovern runs the Rules Committee, the gatekeeper to bills reaching the House floor. Both lawmakers are key members of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s strategy team.
Representative Katherine Clark of Revere serves directly in Democratic leadership as assistant speaker, making her the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House and the second-highest-ranking Democratic woman in House history. She’s expected to ascend further in leadership at the first opportunity.
Other members of the Massachusetts delegation wield a form of soft power in Congress. Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston and Senator Elizabeth Warren are highly influential in progressive politics, often working together on issues of economic significance such as the recent student debt cancelation policy from the Biden administration. Senator Edward Markey is a longtime leader on climate politics and an author of the Green New Deal that has become a Democratic rallying cry. Representative Stephen Lynch of Boston is vying to capture another influential position as the top Democrat on the Oversight and Reform Committee, though he faces stiff competition.
“Holy God,” President Biden joked in September at an infrastructure-related event at Logan Airport. “I can’t do anything without checking in on the delegation. . . . It’s the most powerful and most talented delegation, I think, in the country.”
That slightly hyperbolic assessment could be dramatically different after Tuesday. And even if Democrats defy expectations and manage to narrowly hold their slim House majority, Pelosi is widely expected to retire soon. Many of the Massachusetts delegation’s heaviest hitters are among her closest allies, and her departure would throw their own futures into further uncertainty.
Life in the minority would be a stark change after four years in power.
Instead of crafting legislation as chairs of committees or subcommittees or simply as members of the majority, Massachusetts lawmakers would mostly be reduced to trying to make life painful for the Republicans and slow their legislative ambitions. With Biden still in the White House, Republicans are expected to use a majority to launch an onslaught of investigations, leaving Democrats to play defense.
The only real legislating would likely come on must-pass bills, such as for federal spending. Those are almost certain to bring extended brinkmanship battles as the parties fight for compromises, but also opportunities for enterprising lawmakers to notch small wins in bigger packages.
So there would still be power to wield, even in the minority.
Clark, 59, could have the biggest change. The top three spots in the House, including Pelosi’s, are held by octogenarians who have been leading the party for years, and younger members have been agitating for change. Clark is considered the strong favorite to ascend to the number two spot in the House Democratic leadership, positioning herself as partners with New York Representative Hakeem Jeffries, who is expected to vie for the top spot.
In an interview, Clark declined to discuss her own political future.
“There’s one election I’m focused on and that’s November 8,” Clark said. “We have to do everything we can . . . [to] hold the majority, not for the sake of power, but because it matters in the lives of Americans and the future of this country.”
But she has been working overtime to bolster her leadership bid. According to her campaign, Clark has traveled to 17 states to stump for other lawmakers this election cycle, and has raised more than $12 million for Democrats. Although she would no longer be assistant speaker, a majority-only position, if Democrats lose the House, her influence within the party would increase with a rise in the leadership ranks.
“She worked herself up every single rung in politics,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a longtime Massachusetts Democratic operative. “I expect her to continue to do that in the next Congress, no matter what.”
While Neal and McGovern insist Democrats will hold onto power, they both said they’d stick around regardless. The two have extensive experience holding senior positions when the Democrats were in the minority, and despite their close ties to Pelosi, have also built up their own power over their many years — knowledge, experience, and relationships that could keep them influential if the House leadership is in flux.
“I love the institution,” Neal said, adding that he enjoys the weighty topics that come before the Ways and Means Committee.
Neal is already mapping out where he sees the potential to wield leverage and make trouble for Republicans regardless of which party controls the House, including a looming fight over extending the GOP’s 2017 tax cut, “which will not be pleasant for them,” he said.
McGovern, 62, is widely regarded as a master of House procedure, serving as a lawmaker since 1997 and a congressional staffer before that. That is an asset that would serve him well in the minority, as procedural maneuvering can wreak havoc on the majority’s legislative plans. He expects the entire delegation to remain influential.
“Everybody is on a good committee and we work well as a team,” McGovern said. “It’s one of the reasons we’re so effective. That was true when we’re in the minority and that’s true when we’re in the majority.”
Pressley’s influence, meanwhile, is less tied to House leadership or committees than her ability to engage the progressive base, making her influential with the administration and to lead opposition to GOP policy making. Well-versed in traditional politics from her stints on the Boston City Council and as a staffer for Massachusetts lawmakers, Pressley has distinguished herself as a key progressive voice in Congress who understands the power of outside organizing. Pressley is also expected to vie for a Senate seat when one opens up.
“One of the great lessons I learned from my mother was that the most effective, transformative way to effectuate change was through movement building,” Pressley said. “I think what I’ve been able to effectively do is to leverage every iteration of power available to me.”
Pressley and Warren recently conducted a statewide tour educating residents on student debt relief, an initiative they successfully pushed Biden to enact. With him still in the White House, they and other members of the delegation will continue to wield clout within the administration even if they’re stymied on Capitol Hill if Republicans take control.
“We punch way above our weight,” McGovern said.