On Sept. 24, 2019, Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a press conference launching the official impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. That day, she introduced America to the six-headed monster of committee chairmen who were investigating Trump. If you pay attention to politics, you probably know U.S. Reps. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., Maxine Waters, D-Calif. and the late Elijah Cummings, D-Md. Each has become famous via their frequent appearances on cable news or viral clips berating cabinet secretaries — or, in the case of Nadler, buckets of fried chicken. However, unless you’re from the East Coast or pay too much attention to politics, you probably did not recognize the chairmen of the Congressional Ways and Means Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee. The two men, Reps. Richard Neal, D-Mass., and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., have planted several landmines just waiting to explode on Trump.
Neal, a grown man who goes by “Richie,” has spent his entire career devoted to budgetary and economic issues. His record is an economic policy treasure trove, focused on simplifying the tax code, repealing the Alternative Minimum Tax and supporting lower trade barriers. He operated in Washington under the radar for years until he came to prominence in 2007 when he clashed with another prominent policymaker, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., over the Alternative Minimum Tax.
While Neal’s bill eventually lost out, his new notoriety in policy circles allowed him to chair the Ways and Means subcommittee on Select Revenue Measures the following year. He then became the ranking member of Ways and Means in 2017, once again sparring with Ryan through the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 — another fight he ultimately lost. However, he got the ultimate win over Ryan by becoming the chairman of Ways and Means when Ryan left office.
Though he has been quiet, preferring to operate out of the public eye, Neal has had a busy year. First, he and the committee built a comprehensive legal argument for subpoenaing Trump’s tax returns and he is now the lead plaintiff in a court fight over that subpoena. Soon after he became one of the leading Democrats on the President’s NAFTA 2.0 trade agreement, also known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). In his spare time, Neal has been chairing the Joint Congressional Committee on Taxation and trying to pass Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s prescription drug bill.
Such a large profile prompts one question: How is he doing? The answer: Not bad, but there are still some big issues on the table. The USMCA passed both chambers, the Joint Committee released a large-scale report earlier this week and the tax returns case is working its way through the federal court system. However, the USMCA contained lower labor standards than Neal initially set out for, the prescription drug bill has stalled and he still hasn’t received those tax returns. Putting his mixed record aside, though, Neal could be easily described as Democrats’ largest domestic policy asset, and with China’s “Phase 1” trade deal coming to the House floor, this might not be the last time you hear about him.
In contrast to the rank-and-file Neal, Engel, whose mustache might be more prominent than the man it’s attached to, has been one of the few members of Congress whose career has been defined by bipartisan compromises. First elected in 1988 based on his progressive idealism, Engel was an early proponent of single-payer healthcare, paid family leave and an assault weapons ban. However, Engel’s career path was altered forever when he fell in love with foreign policy in 1996. He came to prominence in Washington as the leader of a bipartisan group criticizing the Clinton administration’s noninterventionism in the Kosovo genocide. In fact, he became so intertwined with justice for the small nation that a street in its capital is named after him. This trend of criticizing presidents from both sides of the aisle contributed to his credibility in Washington’s foreign policy circles as a principled member. This was especially reflected in 2015 when Engel vocally opposed the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal. As the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Engel has led bipartisan trips abroad that tour everything from war zones to the Munich Security Conference, which grants him significant goodwill on both sides of the aisle. Recognizing his bipartisan history, House Republicans were not upset with Engel’s appointment to the Foreign Affairs chairmanship after the 2018 midterms.
The Trump administration’s plethora of foreign policy blunders have kept Engel busy over the past year, but none more than the Ukraine scandal. This scandal and subsequent impeachment saga threatened to put Engel on center stage, with his committee being one of the three allowed to attend closed-door depositions. When the televised impeachment hearings were looming, Engel was faced with a decision: go on the cable news circuit or forego the spotlight. He quickly chose the latter and allowed Schiff and Nadler to be mocked nightly by journalistic paragons like Greg Gutfeld, Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. In the following weeks, the news cycle churned on and Engel returned to his largely thankless day job of having his subpoenas ignored by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. However, with about 10 months until election day and countless foreign policy decisions, from Russia to Iran to whatever Jared Kushner is doing, this is likely not the last you will hear of Engel, either.
Simply put, both Neal and Engel have consciously avoided the gaze of the general public, preferring to silently lay traps for Trump using their high offices and large portfolios. When the administration inevitably encounters one of these traps — my bet is Neal’s tax return subpoena or Engel’s Ukraine revelations — they will find a foe with tremendous respect and without a demeaning nickname bestowed by Fox News or Trump’s Twitter feed. That is the point.
Keith Johnstone can be reached at email@example.com.