WASHINGTON — Stroll into Richard Neal’s gilded office in the Capitol, and you’ll find there is a lot he’d rather talk about than Donald Trump’s tax returns.
As the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which wields oversight on taxes and originates revenue bills, the Massachusetts congressman has been attempting to bask in the historic significance of the job, pointing to the long line of men who served on the vaunted committee before him. Some of their faces line the walls of his new office.
“Eight presidents, including the author of our Constitution, James Madison,” Neal proudly proclaimed to a group of visitors seeking government funding for their industry recently.
Later, in an interview, Neal added, “This is the committee that financed the Civil War, financed the Lewis and Clark expedition, World War II and World War I. I mean, this is the committee that’s asked to do extraordinary things.”
It’s good patter, but it’s not working. Even before Neal officially took the chairman’s gavel in January, the public’s eye focused on just one previously obscure power of the committee: to demand any American’s tax returns, including the president’s. That power has catapulted the painstakingly understated, controversy-avoiding Neal into the very center of the right’s and left’s outrage — an unlikely turn of events for a former history teacher who has operated for 30 years in Congress outside the spotlight.
For the first two months of his young chairmanship, Neal has presided over hearing after hearing focused on infrastructure, preexisting medical conditions, and trade negotiations with China — all issues falling under the committee’s broad mandate to levy taxes and oversee international trade. But the one thing Neal hasn’t done — much to the annoyance and even outrage of many liberals — is request the president’s tax returns. He has said that he will do it but also that he needs more time to build a legal case, given that the White House has said it would fight the request in court.
But now lawmakers privately say they expect the new chairman to make the tax-returns request in the coming weeks, following testimony from Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen last month that suggested Trump lied on his financial disclosure forms. Cohen’s testimony gives the committee a stronger argument that it needs the returns to investigate a potential crime instead of for a political fishing expedition. But despite the best efforts of the scrum of reporters following him around the Capitol every day, the chairman has kept quiet on when exactly the request will be ready, or how broad it will be.
His allies argue that although Neal appears to be taking his time, it’s in the service of making a legally bulletproof request that takes into account how fiercely Trump is likely to fight him in court.
“The only person Donald Trump should fear more about his taxes than Robert Mueller is Richie Neal,” said Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts. “He will get the job done.”
But Neal is facing considerable scrutiny from Democrats who believe the committee should quickly announce a decision to subpoena at least 10 years of Trump’s personal and business returns.
“We really need the business returns,” said Representative Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. “Maybe not all 500 [of Trump’s business] entities but the principal ones.”
Neal’s reluctance to share a timeline is annoying some Democrats eager for the new House majority to dig into Trump’s past and start impeachment proceedings. Billionaire Tom Steyer, an impeachment advocate, is parachuting into Neal’s Western Massachusetts district Wednesday to host a town hall in Springfield with impatient local activists pressuring Neal to speed it up.
“He knew he was going to be chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee on November 6, 2018,” Steyer said. “That is literally four months ago.”
If Neal’s eventual request is broad enough to satisfy Democrats, the congressman will likely face intense blowback from the right, including President Trump, who has long referred to his personal finances as a red line that investigators should not cross.
Neal, a former high school quarterback who grew up working-class in Springfield, is known to stay unruffled even in times of stress. He claims he’s faced more pressure negotiating with the patrolmen’s union as mayor of Springfield.
“He’s a Yankees fan, so he can withstand anything,” Representative Bill Keating of Cape Cod said jokingly.
And the 16-term congressman has waited patiently to snag the top spot on the committee that oversees taxation and the Treasury. Neal, 70, was so overcome by his appointment that he choked up when talking about it at a Christmas party for close friends and staffers.
“That was a 30-year goal for him,” said Candy Glazer, a longtime friend to Neal and the former chair of the Longmeadow Democratic Town Committee.
Neal rose to power the old-fashioned way: biding his time and keeping his head down. He recalls a piece of ancient advice that originated with former House speaker John McCormack, also of Massachusetts: “Just remember, you never have to explain anything you didn’t say.”
That maxim is guiding his current close-lipped strategy when it comes to discussing plans for demanding Trump’s tax returns. And it’s served Neal well up until now. He rarely wades into public controversies, and much of his work, including steering Massachusetts representatives onto desirable committees using his clout with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has remained firmly behind the scenes.
“Richie is my rabbi,” said Representative Stephen Lynch, who credits Neal with helping to place him on the Transportation Committee this year. “He’s the glue of our delegation.”
But now Neal has found himself at the very center of Democratic power in a political landscape where his approach is increasingly rare. He prides himself on his bipartisanship, pragmatism, and institutionalism at a time when those qualities are regarded with increasing suspicion by both parties.
“Legislative life is painstaking,” Neal said, throwing up his hands into a small shrug. “I’m not very good at outrage, so if you’re waiting for me to paint my face and go to a demonstration, forget it.”
The tensions apparent over the tax-return issue are likely to follow Neal for the next two years. He has the unenviable job of finding ways to pay for an array of progressive legislation that House Democrats are pushing. Ways and Means will be at the nexus of much of the Democrats’ most ambitious legislative efforts. A $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, health care reforms, and efforts to finance the goals of the Green New Deal would run though his committee, for example.
Though he’s by no means a conservative Democrat, Neal is not nearly as liberal as the new wave of progressives shaking things up in Washington. He handily beat back a liberal primary challenger last year who criticized him for taking corporate PAC money, among other matters.
“One of the luxuries that others have that want to put on seminars that I don’t have is that I’ve got to figure out how to pay for it,” he said.
The chairman said he liked “most” of the Green New Deal’s goals and hopes he can help finance them through an infrastructure bill, though he has not said whether he would back a gas tax, a carbon tax, or some other mechanism to do so.
Any infrastructure bill would need Trump’s full support to have a shot at survival in a divided Congress, which makes Neal’s tango with Trump’s tax returns all the more risky. Neal has been courting the Trump administration for its support. The congressman met with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Ivanka Trump for breakfast last month to attempt to persuade them to work with Democrats to fix the nation’s airports, roads, bridges, and railways. He’s also lobbying Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whom he calls a “gentleman,” on the measure.
The infrastructure bill “is going to be done together, jointly standing shoulder to shoulder when the announcement is made,” Neal predicted.
Neal believes he can beat the odds and accomplish something in a divided Congress by tapping into the good will he’s built up across the aisle over the decades — an almost touching faith considering that the federal government was recently shut down for a record-breaking 35 days.
“If you go to Washington, some of Richie’s best friends are Republicans,” said his friend Mike Ashe, the former sheriff of Hampden County.
That good will is real, though it’s unclear how much it’s worth. On a recent day as Neal walked through the Capitol after a trade hearing with a Wall Street Journal in hand, Representative Jackie Walorski, a Republican from Indiana, yelled at him as he passed, “Hey, great hearing today!”
And a handful of Republicans defended Neal when he took the committee’s small first step toward requesting the tax returns with a subcommittee hearing on the issue recently.
“I don’t challenge Mr. Neal’s integrity,” said GOP Representative Tom Reed, who opposes the committee using its subpoena power for Trump’s tax returns. “He’s a gentleman, I respect him.”
But Neal was not there to hear the compliment. He had, in typical cautious fashion, decided that the subcommittee should handle that first step without him.