What the Democrats Would Do With a House Majority

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- House Democrats have rolled out an outline of their first priority should they win a majority: a package of political reforms covering campaign finance, redistricting, voting and registration, and government anti-corruption pieces. Then, they say they’ll turn to subjects that President Donald Trump has expressed interest in: infrastructure, and controlling drug prices.

Does their reform bill have a chance of becoming law? Not really. Republicans are likely to retain a slim Senate majority and most of them are opposed to almost all of these measures. Even if Democrats defy the odds and wind up with 51 Senate seats, they still won’t be able to overcome a filibuster.

But that doesn’t mean the Democrats’ plans don’t matter. It’s just that policy outcomes will depend on what both parties want. 

Here are the the Democrats’ options face if they win a House majority:

  • They could use the next two years to contest campaign 2020 by issuing a series of press releases in the form of introducing and passing go-nowhere legislation. 
  • They could try to find common ground with Trump to score some real accomplishments by achieving whatever party goals they can.
  • They could emulate Republicans in 2011-2012 by doing whatever they can think of to prevent Trump from having any accomplishments at all.

Of course, it’s possible to do more than one of these. Even if that involves embracing contradictory strategies. Indeed, whatever else the House Democrats do, they’ll almost certainly pass any overwhelmingly popular policies they support even if those measures are doomed in the Senate (minimum wage increases, for example, at least if Democrats can agree among themselves on a new level). 

There’s more to Congress than legislating, of course. House Democrats will certainly be aggressive with oversight, though I strongly suspect they’ll listen to former Representative Henry Waxman and rely too much on overtly partisan spectacles. After all, there are plenty of Republican shenanigans the Democrats can (and should) expose even if they stick to legitimate oversight and avoid the kind of political theater the Republican showboat Devin Nunes has been up to. They should move toward impeachment only if the evidence pushes them strongly.

But there are some choices to be made. Some in the party are going to insist they emulate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Republicans during Barack Obama’s presidency and automatically oppose anything Trump wants to do (and even try to sabotage anything that Trump might be able to claim to have accomplished). Presidential approval drives elections, so Democrats will argue, as Republicans did, that it’s critical for the general election to prevent the administration from succeeding.

Other Democrats are going to take a more traditional approach: Policy is the ballgame, and if there are substantive gains to be bargained for, take them. 

The Democrats’ signals last week suggest they’re headed for the more traditional path of seeking policy gains rather than McConnell-style opposition, albeit with plenty of anti-Republican window dressing. Their H.R. 1, the political reforms, will definitely be a press-release bill: it’ll look good, and most likely poll well, and assuming it passes the House it will die in the Senate. It also is the kind of bill that the “neutral” press will love.In a funny way, it will be both highly partisan — the election reforms would probably overall tend to favor Democrats — but not as confrontational as, say, raising taxes or restoring regulations that Trump and the Republicans eliminated. Indeed, it’s not even an especially partisan version of political reform, given that it apparently omits statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., which would almost certainly have a far greater partisan effect than a bit of election public financing or restrictions on partisan gerrymandering.

Whether they’ll follow through on the direction they’re promising now is, an open question. But it’s good to see fairly substantive, and not particularly vindictive, first steps. 

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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