Rep. Neal’s evolution from campaign finance reformer to corporate PACman

Once upon a time, when Rep. Richard Neal was a freshman and sophomore congressman, he cast some excellent votes for campaign finance reform. 

Back in 1990, Rep. Neal supported an amendment to a bill to reduce the limitation on PAC contributions to House candidates from $275,000 to $220,000 and impose a $55,000 maximum amount allowed to be received from PACs which accept individual contributions in excess of $240. The amendment allowed up to $100,000 in federal matching funds (during general elections) for in-state contributions of less than $50, the matching funds could be doubled if an opponent raises or spends more than $200,000. Candidates would be required to receive in-state individual contributions of at least $25,000 to be eligible for federal matching funds. Matching funds would be financed by increasing the tax check-off on individual tax forms from $1 to $3.

And in 1991, Rep. Neal voted for the House of Representatives Campaign Spending Limit and Election Reform Act of 1991 a bill to provide up to $200,000 in public matching funds for the first $200 of individual contributions for House candidates who have raised more than $60,000 in individual contributions of less than $200 and agreed to a voluntary spending limit of $600,000. Regardless of agreeing to the voluntary spending limits, all House candidates would be limited to $200,000 in contributions from PACs.

But the elixir of PAC money is a powerful aphrodisiac to incumbent members of Congress and soon the gentleman from Springfield began singing a different tune. As the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reported on March 26, 1991 “the top recipient of PAC money in the delegation was J. Joseph Moakley, Democrat from Boston, who received $279,274. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, had no opposition, but he raised the second highest amount of PAC money – $248,879. Almost 54 percent of the money he raised came from PACs.” On May 7, 1996 the paper reported that “in 1995, Neal raised $113,000 in PAC contributions, more than any other Massachusetts congressman.” On July 16, 1996 the T & G reported that “in the 2nd Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, reported total contributions of $30,100 for the second quarter and a total of $71,550 for the year. Most of Neal’s contributions in the second quarter, $20,550, came from PACs, while $9,550 came from individuals.”

Getting  named to the powerful tax-writing Committee on Ways & Means in 1993, was like Rep. Neal going to PAC heaven. By 2002, Rep. Neal was raking in huge amounts of PAC money into his campaign committee as the T & G reported on October 5 of that year “Also unopposed, U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, has $1.07 million on hand, with 51 percent raised from PACs.”

In 2001, as the effort to ban “soft money” heated up on Capitol Hill with the introduction of the landmark McCain-Feingold bill in the Senate, Rep. Neal gave a very revealing interview to the T & G on January 18, showing his true sentiments about this aspect of campaign finance reform: Campaign finance reform, an issue pushed by Sen. John S. McCain 3rd, R-Ariz., during his failed bid for the Republican nomination, needs to be discussed — although it could be difficult to make major changes, the congressman pointed out. “You can’t get past the fact that you have to spend money quickly,” he said. “Soft money has contributed to year-round campaigning, which President Clinton perfected. “I’m not sure that the constant push for campaign money serves the system well,” the congressman added. “I confess that I do what everyone else does.”

He said that the Senate and House may pass some form of campaign finance reform in the spring, but that the 1976 Supreme Court decision on Buckley vs. Valeo could stand in the way. In that case, the Supreme Court decided that campaign money, in effect, equals expression.

“Your ability to spend money is essential to the spreading of your ideas, is what the decision said. I don’t think the Supreme Court will back down from the decision. The Supreme Court will have the final say on this,” Mr. Neal  said.

During the years that former U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan served in Congress, the Lowell Democrat shared a townhouse on Capitol Hill with Neal as roommates. Meehan was the prime Democratic co-sponsor of the Shays-Meehan bill, the House companion legislation to McCain-Feingold soft money ban. But in order to get the bill passed by the Republican-controlled House, supporters had to use a “discharge petition”, a parliamentary move to force the bill onto the floor for a vote. As pressure mounted on the remaining holdouts, Neal was finally dragged kicking and screaming to be one of the last four members to finally sign it.

As Rep. Neal’s tenure has grown, so has his reliance on PAC money. A 2011 Associated Press review found that “Neal raised a higher percentage of funds from political action committees (76 percent) than any other member of the Massachusetts House delegation. He raised $535,450 from PACs during the current election cycle, according to analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.”

As  Rep. Neal tried for a 16th term in 2018, his dependence on corporate PAC funds has reached new heights. In the 2018 election cycle, Neal’s warchest is filled with more than $1.4 million in PAC money (76 percent) compared with only $8,030 (0.42 percent) from small individual contributions of $200 or less. His top contributors continue to be some of the most muscular special interests in Washington, the insurance industry, BigPharma and the securities and investment lobby

Six years before the Supreme Court gave us the Citizens United vs FEC decision that unleashed a torrent of corporate money into political campaigns as “issue ads”, Rep. Neal showed his true colors by voting against the 527 Reform Act of 2006 which sought to restrict independent expenditures by political committees not connected to any candidate. 

Rep. Neal’s weak record on campaign finance reform earned him a lifetime score of 0% from Common Cause through 1999-2000. By 2016, the watchdog organization gave Neal a lowly 53% for support of pro-campaign finance reform positions.

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