IF REPRESENTATIVE Richard Neal succeeds in his ambition to be the next chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, it would be a boon to Massachusetts and a testament to Neal’s behind-the-scenes diligence. But in seeking to become one of Washington’s top dealmakers, Neal shouldn’t also accede to the capital’s money culture. He shouldn’t sell access to himself. The trading of influence for campaign contributions rightly outrages the public; and while no congressman can operate in a vacuum, Neal must avoid the fund-raising excesses that are open to top D.C. powerbrokers.
His $5,000-a-head “summer weekend on Cape Cod’’ with representatives of special interests at the Chatham Bars Inn was one such excess. It’s one thing to accept contributions from those hoping for favors; it’s another to hunker down with them for a weekend, with a fat entry fee.
Neal is hardly alone in this type of fund-raising. Building a campaign war chest and then doling out contributions to fellow members helps grease the path to plum chairmanships. But there are plenty of ways for Neal to raise funds without explicitly offering closed-door access to himself, and the fact that other members use similar methods doesn’t make it right.
Neal has a good case to make for himself. He was orphaned as a child, and raised in part on Social Security survivor benefits. His personal story helped make him one of the most effective advocates against former President George W. Bush’s attempt to privatize portions of Social Security. Neal argued that the Social Security trust fund should be kept by the government, as a last resort for people without other means. His common touch and sensitivity are assets. So is his on-the-ground experience as mayor of Springfield.
In addition, Neal’s hard work in positioning himself for leadership on the Ways and Means Committee is a service in itself to his constituents. The Ways and Means Committee, which oversees taxes and spending, is a prime perch for delivering federal aid to struggling communities like his own. Massachusetts has always benefited from savvy congressmen in top positions, from the late Speaker Tip O’Neill to the late Rules Committee chairman Joe Moakley, who always delivered aid to Boston.
But Neal must be mindful of the range of scandals that brought down past Ways and Means chairmen, from Wilbur Mills to Dan Rostenkowski to Charles Rangel this year. The chairmanship is one of Washington’s great temptations. Neal should by all means pursue it — but not in a way that compromises his integrity.