WASHINGTON — Representative Richard Neal of Springfield is a self-described institutionalist, a veteran lawmaker who prefers diving into complex fiscal policy over throwing partisan bombs.
But as the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, he again has become a key player for his party in a high-stakes tax fight that could reverberate in the presidential election.
Republicans have seized on allegations from a whistle-blower of improper interference by the Biden administration in an Internal Revenue Service investigation of the president’s son Hunter Biden, drawing Neal and the powerful committee he reveres into the controversy.
Neal, 74, has been there before. As the panel’s chairman in 2019, he launched a long legal battle to successfully obtain former president Donald Trump’s tax returns. Neal’s low-key, methodical approach was criticized by progressives and spurred a primary challenge to him in 2020. He ignored his critics and told the Globe he felt vindicated when the Supreme Court late last year upheld the committee’s right to obtain the returns.
Now, Neal and other Democrats are contrasting that deliberative approach with what they call the Republicans’ rush to air the whistle-blower allegations without conducting a thorough investigation of the explosive assertion that the Justice Department shielded Hunter Biden from felony tax charges. Neal also accused Republicans of improperly using the Ways and Means Committee’s unique authority to reveal some of Hunter Biden’s private tax information.
“They’re making it up as they go on this stuff. ... I mean it’s conspiracy, conspiracy, conspiracy,” Neal said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. “This seems to me as though it’s debasing the Ways and Means Committee.”
Neal said the whistle-blower allegations, aired Wednesday during a hearing before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, should be taken seriously but that Republicans had made them an obsession.
“This is not about defending Hunter Biden. That’s not my goal here,” Neal said of his objections to how Republicans have been handling the matter, particularly on the Ways and Means Committee. “He is a private citizen. If the Justice Department has issues with him, then they have issues with him.”
The Republican approach on Hunter Biden is particularly galling to Neal, who is a staunch protector of the tax-writing committee’s standing as the oldest and one of the most prestigious congressional panels.
Neal has served on the committee since 1993, slowly working his way up to become chairman in 2019. That’s a sharp contrast with the new chairman, Jason Smith of Missouri, 43, who after just eight years on the committee became its youngest chairman ever in January when Republicans took control of the House. Upon securing the gavel, Smith, a self-described “fireband,” promised “aggressive oversight.”
Republicans maintain Neal was the one who politicized the committee by releasing Trump’s tax returns last year. They warned at the time that Democrats had opened the door to private tax information being used as a political weapon, but insist that’s not what they’re doing with Hunter Biden.
Last month, after a four-year investigation by a Trump-appointed US attorney, Hunter Biden reached an agreement with the Justice Department to plead guilty to misdemeanor tax charges and a separate gun charge that likely will keep him out of prison.
In April, an IRS whistle-blower, later joined by a second one, came forward and alleged the Justice Department interfered in their investigation of Hunter Biden, including delaying the investigation so the statute of limitation on some of his actions had expired and blocking the execution of a search warrant for President Biden’s home. Justice Department officials have said there was no special treatment of the president’s son and noted that the investigation was overseen by Trump-appointed US Attorney David C. Weiss, who was given full autonomy in the case.
But in the hearing Wednesday, one of the whistle-blowers, Gary Shapley, said he heard Weiss say he would not be the “deciding official” on any Hunter Biden charges. Weiss and Justice Department officials have denied the allegations.
Republicans, who launched multiple investigations into Hunter Biden after they took control of the House, called the plea agreement a “sweetheart deal” engineered by Biden administration officials that avoided more serious felony charges against him.
“The Ways and Means Committee is charged with ensuring that the tax code is enforced fairly,” Smith said at Wednesday’s oversight committee hearing. “Clearly, the president only believes in making taxpayers pay their fair share if they don’t share his last name.”
The whistle-blowers initially testified in private to the Ways and Means Committee and revealed details of Hunter Biden’s earnings, including that he received at least $8.3 million in income from 2014-19 from foreign companies, with some based in China, Romania, and Ukraine. Taxpayer information is private, but the Ways and Means Committee, along with the Senate Finance Committee, can vote to release it.
The Ways and Means Committee met in private last month and voted along party lines to release the transcripts that included Hunter Biden’s tax information. Smith said that the information was “clearly in the public interest” and acknowledged that it could not be used by other committees investigating Hunter Biden unless Ways and Means voted to release it, according to a transcript of the meeting.
Neal led the Democratic charge at the meeting, arguing that the Hunter Biden case was a law enforcement matter outside the committee’s purview and rejecting any comparison to his effort to obtain Trump’s tax returns.
“For our part, and for my part for sure, we exercised restraint, always stuck to the facts, and never previewed our work in the press,” Neal said, according to the transcript. “We conducted a thorough investigation and were only granted this authority after our purpose was affirmed by the United States Supreme Court.”
Neal said that the committee had a legitimate legislative purpose, as required by law, for obtaining and then releasing Trump’s tax returns: assessing how the IRS “audits and enforces the federal tax laws against a president.” Although the law requires the IRS to audit the president’s tax returns annually, no audit was launched of Trump’s returns until April 3, 2019, the day that Neal requested them, the committee found. Such an audit was crucial in Trump’s case, Neal said, because he was the first major party nominee in decades not to publicly release his tax returns.
After Trump’s Treasury Department, which oversees the IRS, refused the request for the tax returns, Neal went to court in July 2019 to obtain them. But some progressives criticized him for the pace of his effort — first waiting about three months after becoming Ways and Means Committee chairman to request the returns from Treasury and then another three months to file suit. The lengthy legal fight meant the returns were not released before the 2020 presidential election and ultimately not until December after the final legal challenge was rejected.
Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, a progressive public interest group, criticized Neal’s slow-paced approach to Trump’s taxes in 2019. He continues to believe Neal could have acted quicker, but said the approach “arguably strengthened” the notion the committee must demonstrate a legislative need before obtaining private tax information. Still, he’s not sure that will matter in the Hunter Biden case.
“I suspect Smith can construct a legislative pretext for this investigation, even as I’m skeptical it is anything other than a political stunt,” Hauser said in an email.
Smith said the Hunter Biden case highlights the need for “legislative reforms that protect against interference and favoritism.” But Neal has argued that Republicans have no real legislative purpose in digging into Hunter Biden’s taxes.
“It’s throwing up mud and seeing if anything sticks,” Neal told the Globe. “I have no problem with oversight, that’s the responsibility of the Congress but … the zealotry is inconsistent with Ways and Means history.”