Repub­li­cans weaponised the House. Democrats will use it against Trump

Financial Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - JOSHUA GREEN

The Novem­ber 6 elec­tions ended two years of un­fet­tered Repub­li­can con­trol of Wash­ing­ton and brought the cur­tain down on what will likely be — de­spite its ex­haust­ing, near-con­stant chaos — the smoothest pe­riod of Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency. Re­ally. Things will get even rock­ier from here.

The Democrats com­ing to Wash­ing­ton are younger, more di­verse, more fe­male, and more lib­eral than be­fore. They’ll con­trol the US House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the sub­poena power it grants them — and they’ll be mind­ful that vot­ers sent them to Congress to act as a check on Trump.

The Repub­li­cans who sur­vived the midterm purge are older, whiter, and Trumpier than be­fore. They were sent to Wash­ing­ton not to check Trump, but to su­per­charge his agenda. The new Repub­li­can se­na­tors who de­feated red­state Democrats in places such as North Dakota and Mis­souri won’t for­get that the pres­i­dent’s clos­ing mes­sage of an­gry na­tivism pro­pelled them to vic­tory. Even in the House, the far­right, pro-Trump Free­dom Cau­cus ex­panded its power within the GOP cau­cus, be­cause prac­ti­cally ev­ery Repub­li­can with bi­par­ti­san in­cli­na­tions — and there weren’t many — was de­feated. Come Jan­uary, it will be as hard to spot a mod­er­ate Repub­li­can on Capi­tol Hill as a yeti. Pre­dict­ing the po­lit­i­cal fu­ture can be a fu­tile en­deavor, es­pe­cially in the age of Trump, when the na­tional agenda can hinge on the morn­ing’s Fox & Friends panel. But one cer­tainty ap­par­ent even to the pres­i­dent’s most ar­dent sup­port­ers is that Trump alone will no longer set that agenda, as he’s been ac­cus­tomed to do­ing since he jumped into the pres­i­den­tial race in the sum­mer of 2015. The Demo­cratic House will make sure of that. “Be­tween ap­pro­pri­a­tions and over­sight, be­tween the gavel and the sub­poe­nas, they’re go­ing to grind the Trump pro­gramme to a halt,” says Steve Ban­non, Trump’s erst­while chief strate­gist. “It’ll be the Moscow show tri­als ev­ery day. It’ll be Stal­in­grad.” That could greatly aid the Demo­cratic cause, but it could back­fire if, in­stead of ex­er­cis­ing ac­count­abil­ity, they use their sub­poena power to haul Trump of­fi­cials be­fore Congress sim­ply for the pur­pose of po­lit­i­cal the­ater. Al­ready, Democrats have sig­naled their plans to in­ves­ti­gate Trump’s tax re­turns, Rus­sian elec­tion med­dling, and White House in­ter­fer­ence with the US depart­ment of jus­tice — a sub­ject that will rocket to the fore if Trump tries to halt Robert Mueller’s spe­cial coun­sel probe .

A damn­ing re­port from Mueller that ex­poses Rus­sian col­lu­sion with the Trump cam­paign could touch off im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings. But even short of that, Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fers a bounty for Democrats to pur­sue. “The waste, fraud, and abuse is plain to see,” says Demo­cratic rep­re­sen­ta­tive Eli­jah Cum­mings of Mary­land, who’s in line to be­come chair­man of the pow­er­ful House Over­sight Com­mit­tee, which has an al­most un­lim­ited purview to launch in­ves­ti­ga­tions and de­mand doc­u­ments and tes­ti­mony from the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

One rea­son Trump sup­port­ers such as Ban­non fear Demo­cratic over­sight is that Repub­li­cans have spent years broad­en­ing and weapon­is­ing the al­ready for­mi­da­ble pow­ers of the House ma­jor­ity party. For decades af­ter Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare, the Over­sight Com­mit­tee was run as a gen­tle­manly part­ner­ship be­tween the

Democrats have sig­naled their plans to in­ves­ti­gate Trump’s tax re­turns and Rus­sian elec­tion med­dling

par­ties. To guard against abuse, the chair­man typ­i­cally had to gain the con­sent of the rank­ing mem­ber to is­sue a sub­poena or else win a com­mit­tee vote. Repub­li­cans changed this rule in 1997 to in­vest their over­sight chair­man, Dan Bur­ton of In­di­ana, with uni­lat­eral sub­poena power, some­thing he em­ployed with as­ton­ish­ing zeal as he tried to take down pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton. Bur­ton is­sued 1,052 uni­lat­eral sub­poe­nas dur­ing his five-year chair­man­ship, ac­cord­ing to a cal­cu­la­tion by the com­mit­tee’s mi­nor­ity staff. In 2015, Repub­li­cans changed the rules again, ex­pand­ing uni­lat­eral sub­poena power to 14 com­mit­tee chair­men to help them go af­ter Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Dur­ing Trump’s pres­i­dency, those pow­ers have mostly lain dor­mant. But Democrats such as in­com­ing House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee chair­man Jerry Nadler of New York have left lit­tle doubt that they plan to use them. In April, Nadler put out a re­port list­ing all the ar­eas in which he felt the Repub­li­can-led com­mit­tee had turned “a blind eye to gross mis­con­duct” and shirked its over­sight du­ties. To this list, com­mit­tee Democrats have added con­cerns about nepo­tism and con­flicts of in­ter­est in­volv­ing se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Trump and his fam­ily mem­bers; whether the jus­tice depart­ment has pri­ori­tised the pros­e­cu­tion of im­mi­gra­tion of­fenses over other crim­i­nal cases; and ex­am­i­na­tions of the pres­i­dent’s phys­i­cal and men­tal fit­ness.

In ad­di­tion, Democrats will have weapons they pre­vi­ously lacked. Tak­ing a page from ju­di­cial watch and other con­ser­va­tive lit­i­ga­tion shops, which be­dev­iled the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, pro­gres­sives have cre­ated their own groups, in­clud­ing Amer­i­can Over­sight, that will use law­suits and free­dom of in­for­ma­tion act re­quests to pry doc­u­ments from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to aid Demo­cratic in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

Over­sight isn’t just the key to hold­ing Trump ac­count­able. It’s also the mech­a­nism by which Democrats will ad­vance a leg­isla­tive agenda that could come to fruition sooner than most peo­ple ex­pect. To un­der­stand how, it’s help­ful to look back to 2006, the last time Democrats re­took the House un­der a Repub­li­can pres­i­dent.

Democrats then were no fonder of Ge­orge Bush than they are of Trump. Led by leg­endary House Over­sight chair­man Henry Wax­man of Cal­i­for­nia, they ag­gres­sively pur­sued the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion in ar­eas rang­ing from health care to govern­ment cor­rup­tion to hur­ri­cane re­lief mis­man­age­ment — in that case, Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina. Yet the bit­ter po­lar­i­sa­tion of that era didn’t pre­clude team­ing up on sev­eral ex­pan­sive bills. “We passed sig­nif­i­cant leg­is­la­tion, from the first stim­u­lus to the trou­bled as­set re­lief pro­gramme,” says John Lawrence, who was chief of staff to House speaker Nancy Pelosi of Cal­i­for­nia and has writ­ten a new book, The Class of ’74: Congress Af­ter Water­gate and the Roots of Par­ti­san­ship. “But of course, the ur­gency of the fi­nan­cial cri­sis ob­li­gated ev­ery­one to be­have like grownups.”

No one has any il­lu­sions about grown-up obli­ga­tions now. Ab­sent an­other global cri­sis— and per­haps even if one should arise—the con­ven­tional wis­dom that Trump’s Repub­li­cans and the Demo­cratic House will find lit­tle com­mon leg­isla­tive pur­pose is prob­a­bly cor­rect. Trump still holds a veto stamp, and con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans, more in thrall to him than ever, have the num­bers to en­force it. But here again, as House Democrats showed a decade ago, over­sight power can point a path for­ward and lay the ground­work for leg­isla­tive gains.

“Part of our strat­egy was to use over­sight ag­gres­sively,” Lawrence says, “a task made eas­ier by the fact that we had sea­soned chair­men who were very good at it: Wax­man at over­sight, Ge­orge Miller at ed­u­ca­tion and labour, and Bar­ney Frank at fi­nan­cial ser­vices. We knew we didn’t have the ca­pac­ity to en­act leg­is­la­tion, but we were build­ing the ba­sis for the more ex­ten­sive agenda that would come the next time Democrats took power.”

They didn’t have to wait long. The Demo­cratic over­sight of 2007-08 pre­saged laws that came to fruition just two years later, when Obama won the pres­i­dency and Democrats took the Se­nate. Three ma­jor pieces of leg­is­la­tion—led by the trio Lawrence enu­mer­ated—had their gen­e­sis dur­ing this pe­riod.

Miller held ex­ten­sive hear­ings on the is­sue of equal pay for women, af­ter the US Supreme Court ruled against the plain­tiff in a gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion law­suit. Se­nate Repub­li­cans blocked the re­sult­ing bill in 2008. But less than a year later, Obama signed the lilly ledbetter fair pay act into law. Frank’s in­quiries into sys­temic risk in fi­nan­cial mar­kets and his ex­am­i­na­tion of govern­ment-backed mort­gage lend­ing in­formed the land­mark 2010 fi­nan­cial re­form that bears his name: the Dodd-Frank Wall Street re­form and con­sumer pro­tec­tion act. Wax­man’s over­sight hear­ings were a care­fully chore­ographed ex­am­i­na­tion of the fi­nan­cial cri­sis’s causes and male­fac­tors. That flair for the dra­matic helped build mo­men­tum for Dod­dFrank. Sum­mon­ing Alan Greenspan, the world’s most fa­mous free-mar­keter, to tes­tify, Wax­man pro­duced a vi­ral mo­ment by de­mand­ing to know, “Were you wrong?” Both hear­ings pro­duced ma­jor leg­is­la­tion: Be­fore Dod­dFrank, Obama signed a law reg­u­lat­ing to­bacco.

The les­son of that era is one Democrats will heed again. “You set the ta­ble when you’re in the ma­jor­ity but don’t have the White House,” says Phil Schiliro, who was Wax­man’s chief of staff and later head of leg­isla­tive af­fairs for Obama. “There were things pres­i­dent Bush wouldn’t sign in 2007 that we were able to do in 2009 with pres­i­dent Obama and a Demo­cratic Congress.” Where Democrats choose to fo­cus their over­sight pow­ers will be a re­li­able in­di­ca­tor of the leg­is­la­tion that will fol­low two years from now if Democrats, run­ning with a much more fa­vor­able map, de­feat Trump and take full con­trol of Congress.

At least for now, there’s lit­tle dis­agree­ment about party pri­or­i­ties. In light of mount­ing Repub­li­can ef­forts to im­pose re­stric­tions on who can vote and other ob­sta­cles at the polls, Democrats are ex­pected to in­tro­duce as their first House bill a pack­age of re­forms that would re­store the vot­ing rights act, en­able na­tion­wide au­to­matic voter reg­is­tra­tion, and cre­ate non-par­ti­san con­gres­sional re­dis­trict­ing, along with ethics re­forms and cam­paign fi­nance changes.

Soon enough, how­ever, Democrats could face tough choices about where to pur­sue Trump and how ag­gres­sively—and also whether to em­u­late Wax­man’s bi­par­ti­san model or adopt the more re­cent style of Repub­li­can Over­sight Com­mit­tee chair­men such as Dar­rell Issa and Trey Gowdy, who sin­gle-mind­edly pur­sued their po­lit­i­cal foes on all fronts. To date, most Democrats have heeded Pelosi’s ex­am­ple and avoided in­flam­ma­tory talk of im­peach­ment. “I don’t think there’s any im­peach­ment un­less it’s bi­par­ti­san,” Pelosi said on elec­tion night. But that re­luc­tance could van­ish when Mueller com­pletes his Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion and re­ports his find­ings to Congress. “If Mueller comes in with a crim­i­nal rec­om­men­da­tion on in­dict­ment,” Lawrence says, “all bets are off.”

With the House lost, Repub­li­cans are brac­ing for the worst from the Demo­cratic ma­jor­ity. “It would fit with their style to want to find ev­ery­thing they can bang on the pres­i­dent for,” says rep­re­sen­ta­tive Michael Con­away of Texas, who led the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence. Democrats strongly crit­i­cised that probe, and on elec­tion night the in­com­ing chair­man, Adam Schiff of Cal­i­for­nia, promised to re­visit it. “We’re go­ing to look at the work that the GOP ob­structed,” he told MSNBC.

While the elec­tion day ver­dict was split, with Democrats cap­tur­ing the House and Repub­li­cans ex­pand­ing their Se­nate ma­jor­ity, the big­gest ef­fect of the out­come is that it will im­pose checks and bal­ances ab­sent dur­ing the first two years of Trump’s pres­i­dency. Democrats lost mar­quee races in Texas and Florida, and didn’t fare nearly as well in Se­nate and gov­er­nors’ races as they’d hoped. But they se­cured a set of pow­ers that Trump can­not thwart or wrest away.

Water­gate may be an apt his­tor­i­cal par­al­lel for what’s to come—even if Democrats don’t im­peach Trump. That scan­dal re­mains the sin­gu­lar ex­am­ple of how over­sight can rein in ex­ec­u­tive power and bring about re­form. “Af­ter Water­gate, the coun­try learned through con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tions how Nixon had abused the IRS, used sur­veil­lance pow­ers, and crossed all sort of lines in terms of cam­paign fi­nance,” says Amer­i­can Over­sight’s Evers. This process es­tab­lished a set of po­lit­i­cal norms that held for the next 40 years — and which the newly em­pow­ered Democrats will now try to re­store, un­less the thirst for vengeance gets in the way. “The whole raft of good-govern­ment re­forms that flowed from that pe­riod,” Evers notes, “are es­sen­tially the foun­da­tion of what Don­ald Trump is vi­o­lat­ing to­day.”

Peo­ple re­act af­ter the Ne­vada Demo­cratic Party’s elec­tion re­sults

AFP

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