A New Democratic Gatekeeper on the Trump Agenda

Neal at Ways and Means, one of House minority’s 3 new bigwigs, positioned as key legislative field director

Massachusetts Rep. Richard E. Neal is positioned to become a key legislative field director as the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, Hawkings writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Massachusetts Rep. Richard E. Neal is positioned to become a key legislative field director as the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, Hawkings writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 5, 2016 at 5:00am

The most important changes in the House Democratic power structure so far look more like a tectonic shift than a dramatic upheaval.

Counterintuitively, a caucus where white men have been reduced to a two-fifths plurality will be represented by three baby boomer white men as the fresh public faces confronting the new Trump administration on the biggest domestic policy debates of next year, from highways to health care.

Last week the lawmakers were unanimous in promoting 54-year-old Joseph Crowley, who’s represented Queens for 18 years, to the No. 4 position in their leadership as chairman of the Democratic Caucus, and in elevating 69-year-old John Yarmuth, who’s been Louisville’s congressman for a decade, to the party’s top chair at the Budget Committee.

And then, because of circumstances beyond their control, they were presented with 67-year-old Richard E. Neal of Springfield, Massachusetts, as the default choice for their most important player on the comprehensively powerful Ways and Means Committee.

(The ranking member job effectively fell to Neal, who’s about to start his 15th term, after two others unexpectedly got out of his way.

First 85-year-old Sander M. Levin of suburban Detroit relinquished the top spot, which he’s had since 2010, saying it was a contribution to making room for a younger generation of colleagues to start moving up.

Then 58-year-old Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles decided that, rather than compete against Neal for the committee post, he’d get out of congressional playmaking altogether and return home to accept an appointment as California’s first Latino attorney general.)

The incoming power trio share strikingly comparable partisan voting records along with their demographic similarities. All have voted the way President Barack Obama wanted 93 percent of the time over the past eight years and all have toed the party line 98 percent of the time during the period — CQ Roll Call presidential support and party unity scores that, in both instances, are 5 points higher than the House Democratic averages.   

Going different ways

There was evidence of a split among the three, however, when it came to the matter of Nancy Pelosi remaining as minority leader for another Congress.

It was the most symbolically resonant decision facing the House Democrats last week, when they began recalibrating their approach following an election where they performed more poorly than expected while Donald Trump won the presidency with support from millions of middle-income workers who had been in the Democratic base.

Crowley and Yarmuth are unambiguous members of the Pelosi camp. Neal, not so much.

Although he did not volunteer how he cast his secret ballot, Neal’s nascent campaign for the Ways and Means job got its first big boost from the full-throated endorsement of Rep. Tim Ryan, the Ohioan who challenged Pelosi (and got almost one-third of the caucus’ support) as someone much better equipped to reconnect the party to its Rust Belt roots.

“There’s nobody that articulates a working-class message better than Richie,” Ryan told my colleague Alan K. Ota. “Springfield looks a lot like Youngstown. The guy understands. He talks about middle-class wages. He talks about getting back to work. He talks about pension security.”

Such a recommendation will remain valuable as Neal becomes one of the most important Democratic field commanders in the legislative battles of 2017, in which Trump and the GOP are likely to market quite different approaches as best for improving the lives of those the economy has overlooked.

While Crowley’s new position should give him significant input into party strategy and messaging, most of the time that power will get wielded behind the scenes.

And while Yarmuth’s new job makes him a top party spokesman on big-picture questions about spending, revenue and entitlements, his influence will ebb as soon as the Republicans use their majority muscle to push their annual budget resolutions through the House. (Writing the overdue budget blueprint for this fiscal year is likely first on the GOP’s agenda for early January, because that would set a course for repealing the 2010 health care law under a process immune from a Democratic filibuster in the Senate.)

But Neal’s committee perch will make him the first face of Democratic resistance, or potential collaboration, on the particulars of Trump’s evolving agenda. Tax cuts, payment methods for a public works bonanza, assertive restrictions on trade, a new system for subsidizing medical insurance and changes to the social safety net staples of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — all those measures would germinate principally at Ways and Means.

‘A straight shooter’

Both of his parents died when he was a teenager, and Neal and his two younger sisters received Social Security survivor benefits while living with relatives — an experience that has made him a particularly passionate defender of status quo for the program.

Neal got his first big political role in 1972 as a senior field operative for George McGovern in Massachusetts, the only state the Democrat carried for president that year. A high school history and government teacher, Neal worked at City Hall in Springfield, the state’s third biggest city, got to the city council and then won three terms as mayor before securing an open House seat in 1988. Now the senior House member in the state’s delegation, nine of his 10 most recent re-elections have happened without any Republican challenger.

Neal joined Ways and Means in 1993. There, he developed a reputation as one of the panel’s most committed students of policy arcana and one of the Democrats with sustained close working relationships with the business community. He’s also collaborated with the GOP on some ideas, most recently a proposed tax break for patent income and a softening of federal regulations governing investment advice.

“He’s an honest broker and a straight shooter,” said the panel’s No. 4 Republican, Pat Tiberi of Ohio.

Neal has supported some trade liberalization agreements, most recently with South Korea and Panama in 2011. But he has consistently opposed fast-track congressional procedures for such deals, including a high-profile rebuff of Obama on the key Trans-Pacific Partnership test vote last year.

He’s been the top Democrat on the tax policy subcommittee for a decade and is outspokenly eager to help write the first overhaul and simplification of the IRS code in three decades.

“The last time tax reform was done in America, the internet had not been invented,” he noted two years ago. “That tells you something right there.”

Tax policy, in many ways, matches Neal’s overall style. “It’s not glitzy,” he said.