Richard Neal is a patient man in a hurry.
Wait, isn’t that an oxymoron?
Well, consider: Neal, the dean of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, has spent 26 years on the House Ways and Means Committee. Early next year, after a quarter-century of diligent policy- and relationship-making, the 69-year-old will claim the committee gavel — and with it, become one of the most powerful people in Washington.
Now that his time has arrived, the Springfield Democrat has issues aplenty he wants to tackle.
Like shoring up the Affordable Care Act. And guaranteeing that those with preexisting conditions can continue to buy affordable, comprehensive insurance.
Protecting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid has long been a cornerstone priority, but Neal will now also focus on making retirement more secure for Americans. With the private-sector migration from pensions to 401(k) programs, “a lot of people are now discovering that we haven’t been saving enough,” he says.
No, that won’t spell a return to the era of more private-sector pensions. But Neal wants to explore ways to encourage small businesses that curtailed their 401(k) matches during the recession to offer catch-up payments.
“Using the tax code to promote savings is a good idea,” he says.
He also wants a substantial infrastructure bill. But didn’t the Trump administration, by offering only a paltry $200 billion federal ante, demonstrate a distinct lack of sincerity on that subject?
“I think all that has changed now,” notes Neal. “Since the election, I have been told that they are very serious about doing infrastructure.” That word came from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, according to Neal’s office.
Question: With the annual budget deficit expected to hit $1 trillion next year, where will the money come from for all the things the Democrats hope to do? Will the Democrats try to repeal part or all of the tax cut the GOP rammed through in 2017?
Ways and Means will be examining the tax bill closely, a process that will include public hearings, he says.
“It was written in 51 days without any public hearings or any public witnesses offering testimony,” he notes. Neal won’t prejudge where that reexamination will lead, but says a pattern he has observed during his decades in the House bears on his thinking: Republicans have pushed for fiscal discipline when Democrats held the White House, only to abandon those professed concerns in favor of tax cuts when the GOP gained control.
And on a day when General Motors announced that it would be shuttering five North American plants and laying off some 14,000 employees, Neal observed that the revenue bonanza from the business tax cut has principally “gone to stock buybacks and dividends” rather than, say, higher wages or more business investment in plant or equipment.
Asked if he is going to request Trump’s tax returns, as the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee is legally authorized to do, Neal replies: “We are.” That matter would be better resolved if Trump released them himself, he says, without any expectation that he will; instead, he anticipates it will all be fought out in court
Asked about a carbon tax to battle global warming, Neal says it’s something he wants to examine.
As he reflects on his own ascension, the congressman nods to the late Representative Joe Moakley, who helped him and Jim McGovern win their posts on the Ways and Means Committee and the Rules Committee, panels each will chair in the next
In a similar way, Neal has worked to land younger members posts where they can grow to be pivotal players. He’s helped Joseph P. Kennedy III secure a spot on Energy and Commerce, Katherine Clark land one on Appropriations, and Seth Moulton get aboard Armed Services. He’s hoping to play a similar role with the state’s two new congresswomen, Lori Trahan and Ayanna Pressley.
It’s important to pick your spots carefully, says Neal.
“In Massachusetts, because we tend to stay a long time, your committee assignment in many ways is destiny,” says Neal — a man whose destiny has finally arrived.Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.