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Progressives eye ‘sea change’ at powerful House committee

A primary loss by veteran Democratic lawmaker Richard Neal would bring new leadership to the Ways and Means panel

Massachusetts Rep. Richard E. Neal, shown here on July 24, is being challenged by Alex Morse in a Sept. 1 Democratic primary.
Massachusetts Rep. Richard E. Neal, shown here on July 24, is being challenged by Alex Morse in a Sept. 1 Democratic primary. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

There’s more than just another upset on the line in the expensive primary fight between Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., who’s represented the 1st Congressional District of Massachusetts since 1989, and Alex Morse, the 31-year-old mayor of Holyoke.

A Morse victory would arguably be the most significant primary dethroning of a powerful House lawmaker since Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., was toppled in 2014. Neal, who as chairman of Ways and Means has jurisdiction over tax, trade and health care policy, could have to hand the gavel to someone viewed more favorably on the left.

Progressives’ appetite to knock out Neal has been stoked by their desire to see Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, become the next Ways and Means chairman, according to lobbyists. If former Vice President Joe Biden defeats President Donald Trump on Nov. 3, whoever wields that gavel will play a lead role in shepherding Biden’s agenda through the House.

Doggett, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is currently chairman of the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee and second in seniority on the full committee. 

Unlike Doggett, neither Biden nor Neal have endorsed a Green New Deal for climate policy, or “Medicare for All” legislation that would gut private health insurance. Doggett could chart a more progressive course when it comes to expanding the 2010 health care law, and the Texan is a fierce pharmaceutical industry critic, likely to push more aggressive drug pricing action. 

Doggett has long pushed proposals to close corporate tax loopholes. He backed Progressive Caucus budget plans that would go further than Biden’s tax proposals, including raising the top rate on billionaires to 49 percent and imposing new taxes on carbon emissions and securities transactions. Neal voted against the progressives’ budget when it last came up for a House vote in 2017.

Neal, the onetime Springfield mayor whose district is a short drive from Hartford, Connecticut — the self-styled “insurance capital of the world” — has received the most donations during his career from the insurance and securities and investment industries. Health professionals and pharmaceutical companies are also among Neal’s top contributors.

His top lifetime donors are employees of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance and FMR Corp., parent of Boston-based Fidelity Investments, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In the 2020 cycle, Neal’s largest contributions come from private equity titan Blackstone Group, followed by health insurer Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

Doggett, an Austin lawyer first elected in 1994 despite that year’s GOP landslide, has gotten the most support from lawyers during his career. His biggest lifetime donor is the trial lawyers’ group, the American Association for Justice, followed by labor unions. Health care providers have also contributed heavily to Doggett this cycle, particularly given his subcommittee perch.

A Doggett chairmanship would represent “a sea change” at Ways and Means, according to a progressive lobbyist speaking on condition of anonymity. “I think it’s absolutely fair to say it’s a game-changing move to have him in charge of Ways and Means,” the lobbyist said, particularly because one of Doggett’s focuses would be “reining in Big Pharma.”

The Neal-Morse race has heated up over the last month as outside groups have made six-figure independent expenditures, including over the last 10 days as Morse’s sex life came under scrutiny. The two Democrats face off in a debate Monday in advance of Massachusetts’ Sept. 1 primary.

Neal has outraised Morse 4-to-1 and remains heavily favored. Morse campaign polling revealed he was trailing Neal by double digits even prior to recent allegations of improper behavior toward students, including when he was an adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

While the openly gay Morse acknowledges that he had sex with students, he suggests the accusations coming to light this close to the primary are “highly suspicious” and politically motivated.

“Every interaction I’ve had has been consensual between adults and I’ll let people come to their own conclusions,” Morse told reporters Thursday.  Nonetheless, Morse’s backing from Justice Democrats, which has fueled several high-profile progressive upsets in recent years, has the Neal camp taking nothing for granted.

Waiting in the wings

The death of Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., on July 17 has left the 73-year-old Doggett the most senior Democrat on Ways and Means after Neal, followed by Rep. Mike Thompson of California and John B. Larson of Connecticut, who aren’t considered liberal firebrands in Doggett’s vein.

Thompson’s wine country district is near Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s, and he’s Neal’s top lieutenant on tax matters. Larson is chairman of the Social Security subcommittee, and, like Neal, has strong ties to the financial services industry. Larson is also a onetime member of House Democratic leadership and is close to Pelosi.

There’s “a generational conflict” within the Democratic Caucus, one lobbyist who asked for anonymity said, as young progressives aligned with Doggett are more apt to take on Pelosi. The speaker is viewed as more attuned to the needs of moderate Democrats in GOP-leaning districts than some progressives in safe seats would like.

“I think there would be a legitimate race for the chairmanship; I don’t think it would be a coronation,” the lobbyist said, suggesting the biggest factor could be that Thompson appears to have the best relationship with Pelosi. Another lobbyist agreed that there would likely be a contest, but said there is already a feeling that Californians have enough high-profile positions in the House, which could weigh against Thompson.

Both Doggett and Thompson are co-sponsors of the primary Medicare for All bill. Larson isn’t, though he’s the lead sponsor of legislation to allow people to buy Medicare coverage starting at age 50.

Doggett would also likely seek changes to the House-passed drug pricing bill, which would require Medicare to negotiate prices based on an average paid by other wealthy countries. Doggett’s primary concern with the sweeping drug price measure was that it put an arbitrary limit on the number of drugs that could be negotiated, and the lower prices wouldn’t be extended to uninsured individuals. 

Surprise billing 

Doggett would also likely differ from Neal in the effort to ban “surprise medical bills” — and Neal’s role in the stalled process is among the reasons his primary became more challenging in the first place. 

While lawmakers in both parties are largely in agreement that patients should be protected from bills with out-of-network charges in emergencies or at in-network hospitals, disagreements over how health care providers and insurers would work out disputes derailed the effort in late December. Neal is viewed by some advocates as the chief stumbling block that prevented surprise billing provisions from being included in a year-end spending bill.

As Ways and Means worked on surprise billing legislation last year, Doggett unsuccessfully pushed language that would have made it more friendly for patients and that would require more transparency from private equity-backed medical providers.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have criticized private equity firms such as Blackstone that own standalone emergency rooms or doctor-staffing firms as a major factor behind surprise billing problems, since they often charge higher rates than are typically negotiated between hospitals and insurers.

“How can we expect Congressman Neal to take on private equity, to take on Big Pharma, to take on the fossil fuel executives, to take on Wall Street, when at the very same time, he’s taking their money?” Morse said during his Thursday press call. 

Neal’s campaign, meanwhile, is making no apologies for his own progressive record, touting his efforts on behalf of expanding health care coverage, clean energy tax incentives and more. He’s reeled in endorsements from groups such as the American Federation of Teachers, Human Rights Campaign and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ political action committee. 

The endorsement that probably looms largest is from Lewis, Neal’s longtime Ways and Means colleague.

In a letter dated June 30, weeks before his death, the civil rights icon wrote that Neal is “a fighter and a champion for middle and working class families in western and central Massachusetts and across our nation. Now more than ever, we need his expertise, thoughtfulness, and leadership.” 

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