Waiting his turn

Richie Neal, a centrist Democrat from Massachusetts and a master of the inside, bides his time at Ways and Means

PAUL RYAN’S ASCENSION to the House speaker’s chair in October meant some reshuffling at the Ways and Means committee he was leaving behind, a panel with jurisdiction over taxes, trade, Social Security, Medicare, and welfare.

The GOP picked Texan Kevin Brady to move up, as Rep. Richard Neal and his fellow Democrats looked on. For Neal, in his 14th term representing Springfield and all of far western Massachusetts, it was a tantalizing moment. If the Democrats retake the House this November, it could be him moving up.

Neal wants the job. And if he ever gets it, it would mean a lot for Massachusetts. In a Congress that’s banned the earmarks representatives used to use to send money back home, tax breaks are now a more valuable currency than ever.

“The committee structure is the vertebrae of Congress,” Neal says. While many members are impatient and try to gain influence by talking more loudly, Neal says, “It’s better to take the patient route of earning a reputation through the committee structure for being knowledgeable. It pays off for the citizenry.”

Though Democrats’ chances this November are small—at 246 seats, the current Republican majority is huge—Neal is well positioned in the Democratic hierarchy. Six years ago, when Democrats controlled the House, he ran for Ways and Means chairman after New York’s Charles Rangel stepped down, only to come in second to Sander Levin of Michigan. But that could change. Levin is now 84, Neal a comparatively youthful 66.

“My old boss Joe Moakley used to say good waiters get good tips,” says Rep. Jim McGovern, who is Neal’s congressional neighbor, representing the next-door 2nd District around Worcester. Neal has “waited a long time, but I think it’ll be worth it for Massachusetts if he becomes the chair.”

Moakley, the former 15-term representative from South Boston, chaired the Rules Committee from 1989 to 1995. It was a post that gave him a say in determining which amendments were considered on the House floor. He was part of a powerful generation of Massachusetts representatives that now seems a distant memory. Neal is the one best positioned to carry on their tradition.

The last time someone from the Bay State chaired a House committee was 2010, when Barney Frank oversaw the Financial Services panel. That same year, Neal got his first shot at the Ways and Means chairmanship. He won by a single vote the endorsement of the Democrats’ steering committee, a relatively small group of allies of then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but later lost to Levin when the whole caucus voted. The final vote was 109-78. Levin ran to his left, which played well in a party in which liberals form a critical mass.

It was an odd position for a Massachusetts Democrat, but Neal is to the right of many in his party on the tax and trade issues that he works on. In 2011, he voted for trade deals with South Korea and Panama, for instance. In 2014, he was among a minority of Democrats to support permanently extending tax breaks for charitable donations.

But his willingness to vote for Republican priorities, on occasion, has won him friends on that side of the aisle. “Richard is a realistic, practical policy maker and during my tenure was one of the people you could talk to to see if an idea had legs, bipartisan legs,” says Nancy Johnson, a former Republican representative from Connecticut who worked alongside Neal at Ways and Means for much of her 24 years in Congress.

Before he left the committee to become Speaker, Ryan was working with Neal to study how much money US corporations have earned overseas and stowed there.

Both of them would love for the companies to bring that money home and invest in job creation here, but the companies don’t want to pay US taxes on the funds. It’s one of the big standoffs in the tax reform debate. Republicans want to lower the rate or provide a tax holiday to induce firms to repatriate overseas money. Democrats want some concessions in return.

Neal is sympathetic to the companies and willing to deal. “There’s an art form and a skill set that comes with legislating and part of it’s to listen as well as to talk and you always have to figure out how far the people on the other side can go,” he says. “I think one of the dangers we’ve had in the modern congressional life is that ideology trumps good sense.”

One proposal, which Neal co-authored with Louisiana Republican Charles Boustany Jr., would give tax breaks to companies that bring back intellectual property, such as patents and copyrights, from abroad.

The idea is aimed right at Massachusetts’s tech industry. “Kendall Square in Cambridge is home to the highest concentration of R&D in the world,” Neal says.

Neal had grabbed Ryan, before his ascension, to get his promise to include the tech provision in any big tax reform bill.

It was typical Neal. When Ryan’s predecessor at Ways and Means, Republican Dave Camp of Michigan, unveiled his tax code overhaul two years ago, he gave a shout-out to Neal, saying he planned to completely eliminate the alternative minimum tax, which was designed to ensure wealthy people with lots of deductions pay their fair share, but has since hit more and more middle income taxpayers. Its repeal is a longtime Neal objective. “Those are the relationships you have and you develop them,” Neal says.

Neal is hoping his willingness to hear out corporate America will help Democrats regain the House, especially now that many House conservatives have alienated the party’s business wing with their nonchalant attitude toward keeping the government open and raising the country’s borrowing limit. Every other week, he meets with business leaders to make the Democrats’ case and to soften them up for a fundraising pitch from the party’s House campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We do not need to be hostile to business growth,” he says.

To be in the minority party in the House is to have very little power. Republican chairmen control the bills that flow through their committees. Republican leaders, like Ryan, control what comes up on the floor. But Neal understands how it’s possible, nonetheless, for a Democrat to help his constituents.

When Ryan moved up, Neal was prepared. With Brady, he already has a rapport. The two are working together to eliminate a Social Security rule that requires the government to in some cases reduce the benefits paid to state and local government workers who are also receiving a government pension. Massachusetts public servants are among those most affected.

Neal also has a bill with Ohioan Pat Tiberi, who came in second to Brady in the Ways and Means race, to permanently extend a tax credit for private investors who put money into distressed areas, such as Springfield. “Part of this game is mastering the inside,” Neal says. “The insiders, by and large, make the trains run on time.”

Unlike many a politician who comes to Washington, Neal seems content to be a House lifer. He isn’t flashy or particularly good with a quip—like former colleagues Frank or Ed Markey—and he doesn’t seek out press attention. He’s never mentioned as a possible candidate for statewide office in Massachusetts.

But he knows the House, and Neal is trying to pass on his expertise. Since becoming the Massachusetts House delegation’s most senior member in 2013, when Markey won a Senate seat, he has hosted monthly luncheons for the delegation featuring invited speakers.

The speakers are chosen for a reason. Last year, for instance, former Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry came to speak about the nuclear deal he helped to negotiate, as President Obama’s secretary of state, with Iran. When the House voted in September to block the deal, which suspends sanctions in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program, not a single Massachusetts representative assented.

The group has also heard from Republican Gov. Charlie Baker; Robert Coughlin, chief executive of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council; and Dunkin’ Donuts CEO Nigel Travis, among others.

Neal is also working to mentor younger members. He helped Salem Rep. Seth Moulton, who defeated John Tierney in the 2014 Democratic primary, win a seat on the Armed Services Committee, personally lobbying Pelosi to secure it. Last June, he toured Western Massachusetts with Joe Kennedy III, who won Frank’s old seat in 2012.

There seems to be none of the rivalry that has sometimes infected relations between the state’s western members and those more high profile ones who represent Boston and the east. “That is something I have seen change with Neal as dean,” says Anthony Cignoli, a Springfield political consultant. “There’s a sense that they are all together and fighting for Massachusetts.”

Neal accepts the notion that he’s “more analytical than political.” He’s rarely seen on television or on the House floor lambasting the other side. “He’s not a culture warrior,” says Ray La Raja, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “He wants to get things done. He’s more interested in economic realities than social issues.”

That ethic comes from Neal’s childhood. He grew up in Springfield and lost his mother from a heart attack when he was 13. His father, who drank too much and leaned on his grandmother and aunt to take care of Neal and his siblings, died before his son turned 20. Richard Neal relied on Social Security survivor benefits to pay his fees at American International College in Springfield.

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Shawn Zeller

Washington Correspondent
He now lives in Washington with an adult son during the week, then returns to the state on weekends and works like someone who might have a competitive re-election race coming up, even though not one of his 14 campaigns has been close. That’s ensured he remains a powerful figure in local politics as well. In Springfield, “Richie Neal is the predominant majordomo,” says Cignoli.

He’s hoping to become just as big a player on Capitol Hill, and Ways and Means is the route. “You stick around for what you hope is going to be the pinnacle of success and achievement for, down the road, leading a committee,” Neal says. “I get to go to work in a Congress and sit on the same committee that James Madison served on. It’s a much-sought-after assignment in Congress.”