Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Richard Neal’s moment has arrived

U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, center, talks with State Rep. Sean Garballey, D-Arlington, left, and State Rep. John D. Keennan, D-Salem, right, before a public hearing held by the legislative redistricting committee in Springfield, Mass., Saturday, March 26, 2011. The latest census figures were released, causing speculation that western Massachusetts could possibly get squeezed in redistricting because of the population losses. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) / OUTTAKe 0329
AP Photo/Jessica Hill
Representative Richard Neal, D-Springfield.

RichARd Neal is about to emerge from the congressional shadows into the national spotlight.

A low-key, behind-the-scenes, let’s-get-a-deal-done type, the Springfield lawmaker is now the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, which means he will be one of the minority party’s point people in critiquing Republican proposals and arguing for Democratic alternatives.

As Republicans prepare to repeal Obamacare, Neal frames things this way: “The Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security are all linked,” and all essential to the middle class.

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Here’s why: The ACA’s financial arrangements have extended the projected life of the Medicare trust fund by more than a decade. Although thought of as health care for the poor, Medicaid now spends a large chunk of its dollars — about $140 billion — on nursing-home care and other long-term care costs. If you include care for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, “it’s headed toward half of the . . . middle class receiving benefits” from Medicaid, Neal says. And if, as Republicans hope, Medicaid becomes a block grant administered by the states? Well, experience teaches it will be one of the first places governors turn to make cuts in tough budgetary times.

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Neal’s effort to pull Social Security into the mix is more of a stretch: If Republicans succeed in repealing the ACA, block-granting Medicaid, and privatizing Medicare, Social Security will be next — and the combination of all those social support systems “is the reason Mom and Dad aren’t living in your attic.”

Although the GOP is obviously in Washington’s catbird seat, Neal doesn’t see a unified governing party. “There are three different parties: The House Republicans, the Senate Republicans, and Donald Trump,” he says. House Speaker Paul Ryan wants to move forward aggressively with a sweeping conservative agenda, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is worried about overreach, and Trump is . . . well, hard to gauge.

“You can always deal with the predictable Republicans,” Neal says. “The challenge for me is how to deal with an unpredictable one.” Still, he sees this bright spot: Trump pledged during the campaign not to cut Social Security or Medicare benefits. Look for that commitment to be a favorite arrow in the Democratic quiver.

Neal, 67, also plans to highlight the hugely top-heavy nature of the tax cut Trump has proposed — and to use his long experience on Ways and Means to debunk the notion, so dear to hard-core supply-siders, that tax cuts pay for themselves. That’s theology not economics, he says, noting that “there is no economic data that supports that theory.”

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Yet Neal, who supports a tax cut for the middle class, knows it will be a struggle to block a big tax treat for upper earners. He recalls meeting with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney early in 2001, when the budget was in surplus and the United States was actually chipping away at the national debt.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we continue to pay down the debt and just do a middle-class tax cut?,’ ” he recalls. “They were not charmed.” No, indeed. Instead, big tax cuts skewed toward upper earners helped push the national ledger back into the red. This time around, he says, Democrats must make the consequences of huge tax cuts clear.

“We have to be careful not to let them offer a big tax cut that is slanted toward those at the top, and then come back and say, the [resulting] deficit proves that you have to cut Medicaid or Medicare or Social Security,” he says.

It’s a daunting task that lies ahead, and a decidedly different role for Neal. But at a time when Nancy Pelosi’s House Democrats regularly find themselves denounced as elitists, the unassuming everyday guy from Western Massachusetts could prove to be just what the party needs.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.