Congressman Richard Neal covers the ‘inside baseball’ of politics at UMass
To the roughly 100 people who crowded the upstairs floor of the University of Massachusetts Old Chapel Tuesday afternoon, Congressman Richard Neal’s appearance was a masterclass in the finer details of public policy.
Neal, the newly appointed chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, is in his third decade representing Western Massachusetts in Congress. Billed as “The View from Washington DC: A Conversation with Congressman Richard Neal,” Tuesday’s event was an opportunity for him to discuss his recent work and answer questions from his constituents.
Professor Lee Badgett of the department of economics moderated the discussion, and began with general questions regarding the role of Ways and Means, which primarily handles writing tax policy.
As Neal took questions from Badgett, he showed an appreciation for public policy. “Before I embrace something, I have to actually figure out how to pay for it,” Neal said.
The talk covered everything from retirement plans to his role as the head of the Massachusetts delegation to Congress.
Between discussions of trade policy, Brexit and investments in infrastructure, Neal gave a look at what he regularly referred to as “inside baseball,” meaning how politics works behind the scenes.
As a senior House Democrat, he had influence over committee assignments and made sure to help his fellow Massachusetts representatives in getting on their top choice committees. He mentioned Reps. Joe Kennedy III, Ayanna Pressley, Lori Trahan and Stephen Lynch as a few members of Congress from his home state who all landed on their first or second choice assignments.
Early in the conversation, Neal took the audience through his strategy during the Ways and Means’ hearing last Thursday with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Neal said that by the end of the hearing, he had got Mnuchin to agree on several policy priorities, including infrastructure, raising the debt ceiling and pension security.
Retirement and pensions played an especially large role in Neal’s discussion. He spoke strongly in support of social security and noted that “half of American workers are not on a qualified pension plan.”
On social security as a continuing program, Neal used the analogy that “we all pull the wagon in our youth because we might have to sit in the wagon in later life.”
Neal also acknowledged that much of the media coverage he has received recently has been focused on his efforts to subpoena President Trump’s tax returns. After the hearing with Secretary Mnuchin, when Neal had succeeded in covering all his policy priorities, he said the primary questions from reporters were on when the taxes would become public.
When asked by Badgett about the tax returns, Neal said that he intends to request them from the president, but is relying on the advice of House counsel in preparation for what he anticipates to be a lengthy court battle over the documents. On the counsel’s advice, Neal said that he had been hesitant to discuss the issue in depth.
To prepare for the event, Badgett said she spoke with Neal’s aides and researched the major issues facing his committee.
“I thought a little bit about how that connects to what we do hear in Massachusetts, and I also wanted to encourage him to talk about that ‘inside’ game to know how these decisions get made,” Badgett said. “It’s really rare that you get that kind of angle. You can read about the House Ways and Means committee anywhere, but to hear about how people actually got named to those committees and why, that’s something that you can only hear in person.”
The Congressman’s appearance was sponsored by the Office of the Chancellor, the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the School of Public Policy. In attendance, amongst other administrators, was Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, who made brief introductory remarks.
After the event, Duc Hien Nguyen, a graduate student in economics, said that he was “glad that [Neal] touched on the Green New Deal and also the tax plan and what he thought about it.”
The Green New Deal is a set of proposed legislation and programs designed to fight against global climate change. The bill is currently a major topic of debate in national politics.
Nguyen added that he had wished Neal covered the 2020 presidential elections, but understood that it is still a long time away.
A group of activists holding signs in support of the Green New Deal greeted Neal outside of the Old Chapel and stood in the back of during the discussion. After the event, Neal spoke with a long line of attendees, including SGA President Timmy Sullivan and Vice President-elect Hayden Latimer-Ireland, who brought up the Green New Deal. Neal said after their conversation that he supports the initiative but would need to find the money for it. “I’m not against it. All of a sudden, it’s the sign-on or else,” he said.
In an interview following the discussion, Neal noted his appreciation for the specifics of public policy.
“That’s where the difference is made,” he said. “Generalities don’t get much done. I think specificity does get things done.”