What House Democrats Should Do With Their Majority
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Democrats take over the House majority on Thursday with more women, more ethnic and religious diversity, and the same leadership team that’s been in place for a long time. They have a very liberal caucus, though it includes members from swing districts who likely won’t want to compile very liberal records. So what will this round of a Democratic-controlled House look like? Here are the big questions the party will have to answer:
Will Democrats prioritize policy gains or try to prevent Trump wins? Even in very polarized times, win-win deals are still possible in Congress; just last month, Democrats and Republicans cooperated on criminal justice reform. House Democrats could give in to some Republican priorities in exchange for, say, citizenship for DACA recipients or an increased minimum wage. But will they be willing to give President Donald Trump a record of bipartisan achievements? During Barack Obama’s presidency, Republicans were willing to lose on their own policy preferences as long as they could keep the Democratic administration from chalking up wins. One might argue that their choice was good for the party, even if it was bad for the nation. We’ll see what the Democrats do.
Will Democrats revive real oversight or follow the Republican example of using oversight as a partisan campaign tool? The majority party is certainly going to investigate the multiplying Trump scandals, from his family business to the 2016 campaign to the various bad actors within the administration. There’s plenty to look into, and plenty of stories that have been reported but haven’t made the impression they should. Investigations are part of the House’s role in the government. And carrying out this function the right way will still yield plenty of good talking points for the party. We’ll see, however, if Democrats follow the example of Republicans and chase nutty conspiracy theories rather than stick to the facts — and whether they focus on the main goal of helping the government function properly rather than get carried away with scoring political points.
How will Democrats deal with Robert Mueller’s investigation and the possibility of impeaching the president? There’s no way to ignore that Trump has already exceeded the threshold for legitimate impeachment and removal of a president. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi has signaled that she has no interest in a repeat of the 1998 partisan impeachment that went nowhere in the Senate. Sticking to that sensible position in the face of constituent pressure will be a challenge. So will adjusting that approach, if necessary, as further evidence of Trump’s lawless administration surfaces.
Will Democrats reform the House and strengthen it? Democrats are setting up a bipartisan select committee to “modernize” the House. It needs it: Academic specialists and House staffers have argued that the chamber’s influence in the overall system has atrophied over the last 25 years. Instead of cultivating expertise, the House has rewarded irresponsible nonsense; instead of legislating and proper oversight, it has encouraged spin and talking points. Incentives have increased for partisan loyalty and decreased for substantive contributions. A lot of the best ideas for reform would involve empowering the committees and individual members; that includes such obvious moves as funding more and better-paid staff, and giving back more autonomy to the committees and subcommittees. That’s bound to make life more complicated for leadership, even if it would be good for the House as a whole. It’s too early to know whether the select committee is a good-faith effort to restore House strength or a lip-service device to give reformers a meaningless victory that will fizzle out down the road.
A good start? So far, most of the indications are promising. Restoring the Gephardt Rule, which makes raising the debt ceiling automatic, indicates that Democrats have no intention of using the limit to blackmail the nation. Many incoming committee chairs have pledged to use the power of oversight constructively, not vindictively. Democrats aren’t moving forward on impeachment, at least not publicly. And while it’s way too early to know about reform efforts, it’s better to set up a committee than to do nothing at all. Still, it’s one thing to make responsible-sounding statements before Jan. 3; it’s another to stick with them all year and into the election year. So one cheer for Democrats as they take over the House majority, and here’s hoping they earn two more cheers over the course of the 116th Congress.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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