As progressive House Democrats strategize and push for a vote on Medicare for All legislation as soon as possible, surging congressional and grassroots momentum for single-payer could soon run into a serious obstacle in the form of incoming Ways and Means Committee chair Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who has denounced Medicare for All as "not realistic" and will soon be in a position to tank healthcare plans that are unacceptable to his insurance industry donors.
"Over his two-decade career in the House, Neal has relied on support from the health care industry, receiving $950,000 from health professionals and associations and $750,000 from the pharmaceutical industry."
—Eoin Higgins"Neal will have near total control over what tax-related policies come to the House floor, including legislation that would create a Medicare for All healthcare system," noted investigative reporter Eoin Higgins in a piece for Sludge on Wednesday. "Having Neal at the helm of the committee, rather than a more progressive member, makes it much less likely that the House of Representatives will vote on universal healthcare measures."
As Higgins documents, Neal—who has served as the top Ways and Means Democrat since 2016—has received more insurance industry cash throughout his career than any other member of the incoming Congress, including Republicans.
This fact may help explain his recent attacks on supporters of Medicare for All, who he recently called on to be more "calm" in their pursuit of bold solutions to America's deadly healthcare status quo.
"I think that there is an approach that is a little more incremental in nature," Neal said of his position on Medicare for All during an interview in August. "I understand aspiration... but the idea that overnight you're going to take 20 percent of the American economy and transform it is not realistic."
Two decades of generous donations apparently gets you a powerful congressman willing to throw up roadblocks in front of universal health care.
— Eoin Jinglins (@EoinHiggins_) December 5, 2018
Over his two-decade career in the House, Neal has relied on support from the health care industry, receiving $950,000 from health professionals and associations and $750,000 from the pharmaceutical industry.https://t.co/HbvIfBZiXX
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— Eoin Jinglins (@EoinHiggins_) December 5, 2018
Neal's negative view of Medicare for All pits him against many of his House Democratic colleagues, a growing number of whom have co-sponsored single-payer legislation. It also places him completely out of touch with the 84 percent of Democratic voters—and 70 percent of Americans overall—who support Medicare for All.
Further fueling speculation that he will use his position as Ways and Means chair to squash any Medicare for All legislation, Neal is also backing a proposed rule that would "require a three-fifths supermajority to raise individual income taxes on the lowest-earning 80 percent of taxpayers"—a measure progressives have condemned as an absurd restriction that would make it impossible to fund single-payer, a Green New Deal, and other agenda items.
"It's incredibly important to get progressives on committees like Ways and Means, especially fighters like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez."
—Stephanie Taylor, Progressive Change Campaign Committee"Supermajority tax increase rules, which can be traced back to model bills from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have been used in state legislatures across the country to stymie progressive change," Higgins pointed out. "Neal's push to use House rules to constrain change means that even before the 116th Congress is seated in January, the congressman is already flexing his legislative muscle in a way that will benefit his donors."
With Neal positioned to serve as an insurance industry-friendly bulwark against Medicare for All, Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is vying for a seat on the Ways and Means Committee for precisely the opposite reason—to advance an ambitious progressive agenda over the objections of corporate Democrats, who have helped kill progressive healthcare solutions in the recent past.
As The Intercept first reported on Wednesday, Ocasio-Cortez is taking on self-described "fiscally conservative" Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.) for a spot on the Ways and Means committee—part of a broader effort by progressive members to seize committee positions as a first step in moving toward Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.
"Everything that progressives care about goes through those committees," Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, said of the Ways and Means and Energy committees.
For this reason, progressive groups are mobilizing aggressively in support of Ocasio-Cortez's bid for a Ways and Means seat and against Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-W.Va.) potential rise to the top spot on the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee.
"It's incredibly important to get progressives on committees like Ways and Means, especially fighters like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez," Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told Vice. "It's unthinkable that Nancy Pelosi would choose someone like Tom Suozzi instead."