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Plotting the Ways & Means Forward in the 117th Congress…

Almost normal time ahead legislatively for Ways & Means (pictured in 2019). (WMP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—President Joe Biden has raised the stakes on his presidency, laying out a suite of proposals from infrastructure investment to rebuilding the nation’s social support system. Many of these will soon land in the virtual and physical hearing rooms of the House Ways & Means Committee and in the lap of its chair, Congressman Richard Neal.

Ways & Means has already played a key role in Biden’s American Rescue Plan (ARP) and his American Jobs Plan. Still, Neal’s committee has a broad mandate and the will to work on legislation and oversight across it. As his party moves forward with the narrowest of margins, Democrats on Neal’s committee are eyeing trade, tax fairness, unemployment, and the child tax credit in the 117th Congress.

“We’ve had staggering accomplishments in short order at the Ways and Means Committee,” Neal said of the session thus far.

Sometimes it seems like a papal bull exists commanding comment on how “powerful” Ways & Means is. Yet its jurisdiction includes taxes, trade and most social welfare programs like Medicare, Social Security and unemployment.

While full committee and its subcommittees have held hearings on many matters, Ways & Means’ early focus was Biden’s American Rescue Plan. About half the bill’s spending went through the committee. On the Jobs Plan, which includes infrastructure, the committee’s tax-writing role will be central.

“We will attempt to formulate a policy not just on the plan, but how we pay for the plan,” he said at an April 1 press conference.

Richard Neal

Looking ahead. (via YouTube/Ways & Means Cmte)

In an interview with WMP&I at his district office last month, Neal expressed a mix of relief and excitement about the legislative and executive branches restoring some normal relations.

“I think one of the other areas and avenues, which I would find myself carefully aligned with Joe Biden is institutional memory,” he said. “There’s a rhythm to governance. The idea that it’s all about the noise all the time is ill-considered.”

That means legislation, including revisiting a component of the ARP. Neal wants to make permanent the bill’s monthly child credit and expand childcare. Last month he presided over a Ways & Mean hearing titled “In Their Own Words: Paid Leave, Child Care, and an Economy that Failed Women.”

The child credit begins in July. Neal said it could cut child poverty in half. However, the Rescue Plan is emergency spending. Permanency will require funding. The chairman said his committee is looking at tax expenditures and savings in the tax code to finance it.

“It’ll be a challenge,” he admitted. Neal has also proposed his own bill that will also provide paid family leave.

But bold action is a high priority for House leadership.

In a statement to WMP&I, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said now was time to focus on rebuilding the nation to create jobs and improve its global competitiveness.

“With shots in arms and checks in hand across the country, House Democrats are now leading the charge to rebuild our communities and our economy in the wake of this crisis,” Pelosi said. “Right now, we have a once-in-a-century opportunity to revitalize and reimagine our nation’s long-neglected infrastructure.”

Pelosi added, “Congress and our Country could not be better served by the leadership of our masterful Ways and Means Chairman Richie Neal.”

In the 413, hopes are high that Neal can leverage his position to help realize projects like East-West Rail. Governor Charlie Baker has not been exactly ecstatic about the proposal. The Boston Globe editorial board recently poo-pooed it.

“The editorial was Boston-centric,” Neal said. “For more money to go to the MBTA, I mean, that’s not exactly a very enlightened position.”

Neal promised a concerted push on East-West rail, especially if the federal spigot opens. Last week, Neal plugged a new study that found insufficient connections between the Pioneer Valley and larger metropolitan areas had harmed local job growth.

On funding the Jobs Plan, Democrats have yet to reach agreement and Neal is not showing his cards. “I always take the position for negotiating purposes that nothing’s agreed until everything’s agreed,” he said.

Yet, Neal has not been a cypher on revenue either. He backs beefing up the IRS so it can audit wealthy earners and tax-dodgers. He also wants to clamp down on international tax avoidance, echoing Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s call for the same.

Neal was a critic of the 2017 Republican tax cut. He told WMP&I he has condemned wealth concentration in conversations with CEOS and warned against “the idea of a new Gilded Age.”

Speaking to reporters after Biden addressed Congress, Neal repeated the president’s lament about the wealthy windfall from Republicans’ tax cut. He also observed that Republicans at one time proposed a 25% corporate rate—as opposed to the ultimately passed 21%. That could be an ideal zone for Democrats to land.

The Select Revenue Subcommittee that California Rep Mike Thompson chairs held a hearing Wednesday on tax code’s advantages for the wealthy. Next week, the full Ways & Means Committee will hold a hearing on leveraging the tax code for infrastructure investment.

Kevin Brady

Neal to Brady: Let’s Dance (to infrastructure). (via wikipedia)

Republicans could still support the infrastructure component Neal has said. He has spoken his GOP counterpart, Ranking Member Kevin Brady, about the subject. Neal said they are going to try to make “every effort” to find a path forward together.

Spokespeople for Brady’s committee office did not respond to a request for comment about Neal’s statement nor about areas he and Neal could cooperate on.

They are cooperating, though.

Last week, Neal and Brady announced the bipartisan passage of a bill to reform retirement plans and encourage retirement savings. The SECURE Act passed the House last session and is in good shape to do so again.

Another area is trade, as evidenced by cooperation on last congress’s revision of NAFTA and the mutual respect for each other’s staff.

Neal joined Brady in praising the appointment of Angela Ellard, Republicans’ top trade lawyer, to a position with the World Trade Organizations. Both Brady and Neal introduced Katherine Tai, then committee Democrats’ top trade lawyer, to the Senate Finance Committee at her confirmation hearing to become US Trade Representative.

Near-term, Neal expects his committee to work on trade agreements with the European Union, Kenya and the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom could be especially intriguing. Last month, Belfast was in the throes of protests over the sea border, of sorts, now between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had agreed to this to preserve the open border between Northern Ireland—which left the EU with the UK—and the Republic of Ireland, which remains in the European bloc.

US Trade Rep Katherine Tai used to work for Ways & Means Dems. (via wikipedia)

Neal, Pelosi and Biden have all warned Johnson not to upset the Good Friday Peace Accords. The pact ended the conflict in Northern Ireland. The Springfield Democrat, who featured prominently in the negotiations leading to the 1998 agreement, said it was a necessary condition to any trade pact with London.

Tai will appear before the committee Thursday to discuss Biden’s trade agenda.

A favorite issue of Neal’s, Social Security, could also see legislation. He has long championed the program, crediting it with helping him and his sibling after their parents died. He expressed openness to expansion and reforms to disability. However, he is waiting for a broader review  Social Security Subcommittee Chair, Rep John Larson, is conducting.

A spokesperson for Larson did not return a request for comment.

Another emerging area is oversight. Like all Congressional committees, Ways & Means monitors the subjects on which it legislates. During last year’s congressional campaign, critics and rival Alex Morse pummeled Neal for not using his committee to hold Donald Trump to account.

Neal disputed the assertion, citing hearings and statements regarding that administration. Still, there has been a discernable spurt of oversight hearings since New Jersey congressman Bill Pascrell began chairing the subcommittee.

Some of this is coincidence. Pascrell’s predecessor, the late civil rights legend John Lewis, was battling cancer during much of the last Congress. Yet, since his appointment in September, Pascrell has held hearings ranging from the Trump administration’s attempts to sabotage Obamacare to tax fairness.

“He sees a broad agenda for tax equity,” Neal said of Pascrell. “He called me right away when he said, let’s see what we can do to get the tax season extended.” Earlier this year, Pascrell and Neal called for Biden’s Treasury department to extend the tax-filing deadline like last year. The IRS gave filers another month.

“That’s part of oversight responsibilities,” Neal added.

As he has observed before, Neal said congresses serve with presidents, not under them. The implication being Democratic presidents should not expect an absence of scrutiny from a Democratic Congress. Indeed, Ways & Means has been monitoring complaints under the USMCA, which replaced NAFTA.

Unlike last Congress, Neal’s party also controls the Senate. That means Neal’s counterpart across the Capitol, the Senate Finance Chair, is Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon. While the Venn diagram of Finance and Ways & Means jurisdiction does not overlap perfectly, they share very similar responsibilities.

Massachusetts’s senior Senator, Elizabeth Warren, is a new Finance Committee member. In a statement to WMP&I, she said the ARP delivered historic relief “in no small part” due to Neal. She did not cite specific issues on the Finance Committee she hope would cross the agendas at Ways & Means, but was  optimistic about the work ahead.

“We stand on the threshold of making big, systemic changes that could cut childhood poverty dramatically and change the lives of generations of children and working families in Western Mass and across the country,” she said.  “I know [Neal]’s up to the challenge, and I look forward to working with him to fundamentally change our economy so we can live up to our responsibilities to all of our families.”

Ron Wyden

Ron Wyden, somebody who speaks Neal’s language in the Senate? (via Twitter/@RonWyden)

A spokesperson for Wyden referred WMP&I to a list of his priorities. Like Neal, Wyden is eyeing reform to energy taxes and international taxation. However, Wyden is also looking at how his committee can encourage manufacturing and women and minority-owned enterprises.

After Neal spoke with WMP&I, Wyden unveiled a proposal to update unemployment insurance both programmatically and technologically. A Finance Committee release says the plan would help states update UI systems, which heaved amid last year’s pandemic-induced layoffs.

The plan also seeks to bring some standardization to unemployment benefits. Many states cap maximum benefits at uselessly low levels or peter out after only three months. Wyden’s bill would raise the cap and set all benefits to a minimum of 26 weeks.

Neal’s office did not comment on Wyden’s proposal. However, he has spoken positively about technological upgrades and greater uniformity among benefits nationwide.

“We share a lot of the same views on a lot of matters and we would have differences of opinion on others,” Neal said of Wyden, who has been the top Democrat on Finance since 2014. “But the relationship has always been very sound.”