For 31 years he’s served his home state from the nation’s capital. For more than a decade before that, he served the City of Springfield. He’s been called Congressman, Mayor, Councilor, Delegate, Teacher… and, as of January 3, 2019, you may now call him chairman (though he would likely have you simply call him “Richie”).
Congressman Richard Neal ’72, Hon ’90 was first elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1988. Since 1993, he’s served on the House Committee on Ways and Means, the House’s chief tax-writing committee and one of the most powerful committees on Capitol Hill. In January of 2019, with a newly-won Democratic majority in the House, Neal was named Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
In spite of his growing responsibilities on the Hill, Neal has consistently maintained an active presence in his home district and, particularly, in the city of Springfield. Always willing to spare some time for his alma mater, the congressman shared his thoughts on this milestone appointment, his plans for the coming years, and some highlights on a life spent in service to the public.
Why did you decide to attend AIC?
AIC had then, and now, a terrific reputation. It also had, I think, a key tenant of educational opportunity that includes aspiration. It never missed the fact that the number of people who were in public office who had gone through the doors of AIC, the number of writers, local media, was very, very impressive to me at the time, and I remember getting that letter of acceptance and I can’t tell you how elated I was. My family had only been here for about 60 years on one side, so you get a letter of acceptance to college and we all thought it was the biggest deal. The day that I graduated from AIC, I remember the party we had. My grandmother and my aunt and all of them, we were all just so happy. And I think they were happier for me than I was for myself.
While you were at AIC, in which extracurricular activities did you participate?
Well, one of the most famous ones that I had here at AIC was I organized the George McGovern for President campaign. And while we were not successful nationwide, we were very successful here in Western Massachusetts and part of the launch that took place here on campus. But I also was in that library every night. I worked in Mercolino’s Bakery after school and commuted to college, and I will tell you that being a member of the National Honor Society at AIC is something that I regularly boast about to my children. And in 1971, I received the school’s political science award as a junior. So those were both monumental achievements for somebody who was just looking for a path to success.
As a first-generation college student and the grandson of immigrants, in many ways you stand as an exemplar of the American International College mission and experience. How did your time at AIC equip you for the challenges of a life-long political career?
Well, recall that this college was actually founded by and for immigrants, and I think it also had a stellar reputation based upon the idea that for many, including myself, this was the first opportunity for a lot of the children and grandchildren of immigrants to attend college. So I think in that vein, for me, I simply saw it as “opportunity would beckon.”
Why is AIC important to Springfield and Western Massachusetts?
When you consider that AIC is actually located right in the geographic center of the city of Springfield, that is something people lose sight of. They often look at the downtown or they look at one of the far-reaching neighborhoods, but this is actually the center of the city, right here. And I think that, not just in terms of economics but in terms of the teaching core, in terms of those who over many years had been mentors to me, [who] had been part of the AIC family, I think all of it has an extraordinary influence on economics across Western Massachusetts and again, back to a very important term: opportunity.
Prior to your election to the House, you spent more than a decade working in Springfield politics, first as a city councilor and later as mayor. How do the challenges of local politics compare to those on a national level?
Local politics are always more upfront: you really bump into your constituents literally every hour of every day. In the mayor’s office, you’re the chief decider. Springfield has a strong mayoral form of government so not only are you the chairman of the school committee, but you’re technically the head of the police department, the fire department, all of the other services, and the Plan A form of government really says that there’s only one full-time elected official in Springfield in local government and that’s the mayor. So I think that, you know, from the City Council Chamber to the Mayor’s office to Congress and to the Ways and Means Committee, it’s been a pretty steep climb. But I think that many of the lessons I learned along the way have helped payoff in the large investment that I’ve now had a chance to participate in.
What is your role as the Chair of the Ways and Means Committee?
The responsibility is to oversee part of the most complex aspects of federal governing, and that includes how to raise the necessary revenue to administer the federal government. It is a tax-writing committee. It also has broad responsibilities for Medicare, social security, management of the public debt, trade, tariffs, and the tax portion of Medicaid. It’s a very small working committee, but it has profound consequence. People can always outline great vision; I have to come up with a plan.
How important is the role of the Ways and Means Committee?
Consider that in American history you’ve had eight presidents who have served on the committee including the author of our constitution, James Madison. All revenue measures have to originate in the House of Representatives, and within the House of Representatives they originate in the Ways and Means Committee. So it is the longest standing committee in congressional history. It met for the first time in 1789, just as our Constitution was established, and it’s had some pretty far-reaching moments when you consider whether it was financing the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Civil War, World War I, (or) World War II, all of those measures are exceedingly complex, and you’d have to sift and sort to try to get some sort of a reasonable answer.
What is the Committee’s charge and function?
It is actually to oversee the revenue of the United States and again, the Senate does not originate revenue—the House of Representatives does, and within the House it is the Ways and Means Committee. There’s a very important, if arcane, procedure in establishing legislation: it’s called the Chairman’s Mark. And the chairman is the one who then determines the parameters of how the debate is to be pursued, and in that sense, is again, of great consequence.
What do you consider to be the top priorities of the Ways and Means Committee under your leadership?
Clearly, I’m hoping, a more equitable tax system where we can address what is one of the most burgeoning issues in America right now, and it is a greater concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer people. Democrats and Republicans, I think, and economists would all agree—we might disagree on why it is happening—[that] there is very little dispute as to what has happened.
In addition, I am going to go hard on the notion of retirement savings when you consider that there are 10,000 boomers that retire every day. There are fifty-five million Americans who get up and go to work every single day in America who are not in a qualified retirement plan. So we’ve had some success already on the retirement front. I intend to fully protect the guarantee of Medicare and Social Security. It has fundamentally changed the way senior citizens have grown to their aged years and also to improve, once again, what I think has been a substantial accomplishment, and that’s the Affordable Care Act, which the Ways and Means Committee wrote the majority of.
As the Chair of the Ways and Means Committee, you join a distinguished list of political figures, including three former United States presidents, who have served in this capacity. What do you hope your legacy will be in this role?
Well, you know sometimes it’s important to point out that there were presidents that have served, but also Thaddeus Stevens served as the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He was the individual who oversaw congressional reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War, so there are legislators who sometimes have a more profound impact than presidents do in certain intervals of American history, and I hope that when I am able to look back at protecting Social Security and talking about retirement savings and addressing some of the real issues people confront every day, never to miss the idea, too, that I played, I think, a pretty important role in establishing the Good Friday Agreement in the North of Ireland.
When I started on this, there were 30,000 British soldiers in an area the size of the state of Connecticut—watchtowers and heavy presence of a militarized state. Today, there is no border. You can travel from Belfast to Dublin in relatively peaceful terms and it is, I think, an example of the reach and role of the United States, and America was as a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement in the North of Ireland and I like to think in some measure, that I’ve had an impact on that.
Robert Cole, Mike Eriquezzo, Candy Lash, and Jill McCarthy Payne contributed to this feature.