I doubt that it was even noticed much beyond Washington, but a meeting on January 10 between Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and members of the House of Representatives gave a pretty good sense of how the next two years are likely to proceed, and how different they will be from the two years just past.
Mnuchin was summoned to explain the administration’s actions regarding Oleg Deripaska, the Russian oligarch who is a former associate of Paul Manafort and whom the FBI tried (apparently without success) to turn into an informant about ties between the Kremlin and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Last spring, the Treasury Department added three Deripaska-owned companies to its list of sanctioned foreign entities as punishment for Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election. In December the department reversed course after obtaining an agreement from Deripaska that his ownership stakes in the companies would be reduced to less than half. One of them is the world’s second-largest aluminum producer, and the sanctions listing had roiled the global metal markets. Deripaska lobbied the department heavily, and House Democrats wanted Mnuchin to give them a classified briefing about the decision.
First of all, the mere fact that the meeting even happened is a sign of change. Republicans would never have asked Mnuchin to account for such a move. Second, it played out in the tense, cat-and-mouse way that we can probably expect to see repeated many times. Mnuchin, according to The New York Times, was forced to wait in a congressional auditorium for nearly an hour as members cast votes on unrelated matters. When he finally did testify, Democrats say, he told the House members utterly nothing of value. “This, with stiff competition, mind you, was one of the worst classified briefings we’ve received from the Trump administration,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi afterward. “The secretary barely testified. He answered some questions, but he didn’t give testimony.”1 (The following week, the House voted to prevent the sanctions from being lifted, but the Senate effort to do so failed by three votes.)
The Mnuchin briefing happened one day after Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer accused President Trump of throwing a tantrum during a White House meeting about the government shutdown, which he denied in his usual flamboyant way (“Cryin Chuck told his favorite lie when he used his standard sound bite that I ‘slammed the table & walked out of the room,’” Trump tweeted). The negotiations, such as they are, over the shutdown are in great flux as I write, but they have already intensified the tone of intractable rancor that was expected to govern relations between the executive and legislative branches before it even happened.
The day of that White House meeting, the House found time to cast one policy vote, giving itself the right to intervene legally in litigation over Obamacare following the December ruling by Reed O’Connor, a federal judge in Texas, that the Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional. The measure passed 235–192, with three Republicans—two from upstate New York, one from eastern Pennsylvania—joining all 232 Democrats in support. It was a mainly symbolic vote, but a potentially important one for the 2020 elections: with it, Pelosi put 192 Republicans on record as in essence favoring the overturning of the Affordable Care Act. Supporting the act and expanding health care access was, of course, the Democrats’ top winning issue in last year’s elections.
It’s safe to say that none of these events would have unfolded as they did if Republicans had retained control of the House. The government shutdown would probably still have happened in December, but I think chances are good that it would have been resolved quickly had Republicans retained full control of Congress (this would have required Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s acquiescing to Trump’s caprice, which is not without precedent). But in general, it’s a new world out there, and one for which the president appears to be woefully unprepared. All signs are that Democrats will move aggressively on both investigations and policy—even as the policies they end up pursuing will inevitably reveal the very real splits within their caucus.
The mechanics of a transfer of power are daunting. Pelosi moves from the minority leader’s office in the Capitol to the more spacious and conveniently located Speaker’s office. Committee majorities and minorities switch places, and the staffs of the incoming committee majorities roughly double in size while the new minority staffs are cut in half. Committee assignments must be parceled out to the new members, an especially sensitive matter this year as the activists of the newly energized left work to see that their members don’t get sidelined.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the media star of the left contingent, lost out on getting a seat on the powerful Ways & Means Committee to the Long Island congressman Tom Suozzi, who is beginning his second term and is a member of the more moderate New Democrat Coalition. According to the left-leaning website The Intercept, of the twenty-six Democrats newly given seats on the Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means committees, thirteen are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and fifteen are in the New Democrat Coalition (a few members are in both groups).2
Months before the new Congress was seated, on January 3, the presumptive chairs of the most important committees began mapping out their strategies for legislative priorities and the kind of oversight they would conduct. Then, once the election results were official, the incoming chairs started taking action. New York’s Jerry Nadler, for example, the new chairman of the Judiciary Committee, wrote at least five different letters last year to various executive branch agencies, including the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security, on topics ranging from immigration to voter suppression to allegations of obstruction of justice.
Judiciary is one of the three main committees to watch on oversight matters. The other two are the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Oversight and Reform Committee. The former is chaired by California’s Adam Schiff, a ubiquitous and reassuring presence on cable news programs these last two years. The latter is headed by Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who likewise has been a stalwart opponent of the Republicans, for example by fighting their repeated dead-end attempts to blame Hillary Clinton for the deaths of four Americans at the mission in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.
Nadler, Schiff, and Cummings now have enormous power—large investigative staffs that can sniff around and the ability to subpoena administration officials. Nadler will be the busiest of the three, as he has the largest portfolio; falling under his purview are not only the hot-button topics of obstruction of justice and impeachment proceedings, if things reach that point, but also all issues involving voting rights, civil rights, abortion rights, guns, intellectual property, and antitrust issues. I’ve known Nadler since 1987, when he was a New York state assemblyman and I was a young reporter at the (pre–Jared Kushner) New York Observer. One of our earliest conversations involved his keeping me on the phone for a good forty minutes as he told me every twist and turn in the story, which had become West Side lore, of how Ruth Messinger won her first school board election. I was there in 1992 on the night when the New York County Democratic Committee endorsed him to succeed Ted Weiss in Congress after Weiss passed away. Nadler has an acute legal and political mind; the committee could scarcely be in better hands.
Cummings’s investigative mandate, as “Government Oversight and Reform” suggests, is quite broad. Last year after the election he sent fifty-one letters to the White House requesting information on, in the words of a CNN reporter, “everything from the Trump administration’s handling of immigration to security clearances to the travel of Cabinet secretaries.”3 Cummings’s committee will likely also take the lead on investigations into the Trump administration’s violations of the emoluments clause, which bars officials from receiving money from foreign entities, and the ways the president and his family members have handled their business transactions while in the White House. House Republicans were resolutely uninterested in turning over these rocks. Given that Trump has taken only token steps to distance himself from the Trump Organization, one can assume that Cummings’s investigators will find plenty to work with.
As for Schiff, he will be overseeing a dramatic remaking of the Intelligence Committee, which was used by the previous GOP chairman Devin Nunes to produce pro-Trump propaganda, such as its April 2018 report clearing the Trump campaign of any wrongdoing. Schiff will have wide-ranging jurisdiction, and he will use it. According to a report by the Brookings Institution’s Margaret L. Taylor in early January:
His already-high profile on Russia issues, combined with the investigative powers he will have as chair and his willingness to hold public hearings, could mean he becomes the go-to articulator of the importance of core American values like the rule of law, election integrity, respect for human rights, and anti-corruption, as well as broader foreign policy challenges like the rise of authoritarianism around the world. Such a role would be unprecedented for the HPSCI chairman who traditionally focuses on more mundane agency oversight topics in closed settings.4
Schiff will also have the authority to look into Trump family finances and possible links between the president’s foreign policy and his family’s global financial interests in places like China, with which the administration is in sensitive negotiations even as the Chinese government recently granted Ivanka Trump initial approval for sixteen trademarks.
The investigations will hardly be limited to those three committees, or to matters, such as Russia, that we normally think of as Trump scandals. Nadler is likely to hold hearings on the border crisis and the family separation policy, hoping to learn how the policy was arrived at and implemented, whether normal processes were short-circuited and regulations skirted. Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters and others will quickly turn their attention toward Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who has been the subject of a series of stunning scoops by Forbes reporter Dan Alexander detailing fishy stock transactions and an allegation that Ross, who is worth some $700 million, bamboozled a few million out of a former equity fund business partner.
Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, who has long represented parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, vows to get to the bottom of the secret Trump–Putin dialogues and “the mysteries swirling around Trump’s bizarre relationship with Putin and his cronies,” as he put it in a statement. Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott wants to look into Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s rollback of many regulations on for-profit colleges. Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva has a few questions for the Interior Department. A number of chairs are itching to get testimony from Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on the ongoing border crisis. Ross, by the way, is expected by many observers to resign in the near future, and one senses that several of his cabinet colleagues may follow.
In addition, of course, there exists a world beyond the Trump administration. What kinds of hearings might the Democrats hold, for example, on Facebook, whose executives have serially lied, first to themselves and then to the rest of us, about the hijacking of their platform during the 2016 election and later about their denial and lack of response? I reached out on this question three times to the spokesman for New Jersey’s Frank Pallone, the new chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and received no response. I’ll hope for now that that is a reflection of general chaos and disorganization rather than an unwillingness to take on a company that in 2018 made almost 70 percent of its donations to Democrats.5
And all this is mere backdrop to the real investigation, the one being conducted by Robert Mueller, which may wrap up (it is said) as early as February. Then the question will arise of whether Mueller will issue a report, and whether it must be made public. There is no statute that compels a written report, though it is widely expected that Mueller will prepare one. The administration will presumably fight to keep it private, as William Barr indicated during his Senate confirmation hearing for attorney general. But here, too, the new sheriffs in town will make a difference: Nadler has said he would subpoena any report and see that it is made public.
Whether the House pursues articles of impeachment against Trump will depend on the evidence, but also on public opinion on the matter—specifically, public opinion among swing voters in swing states and districts. Speaking on PBS’s NewsHour on Election Day, Pelosi said that impeachment “would have to be bipartisan, and the evidence would have to be so conclusive.” If she stands by that, it establishes an awfully high bar: Republicans will not peel away from Trump unless evidence of high crimes is overwhelming and shocking.
Pelosi’s posture suggests she will be protective of her majority, of vulnerable House Democrats in 2020 (the party swung forty-one districts from red to blue last November, but many of those victories were quite narrow), and of the eventual Democratic presidential nominee’s chances in swing states. Other Democrats, like freshman Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, with her famous vow to “impeach the motherfucker” on her first day as a member of Congress, will not see things quite that way. This has the potential to cause some ugliness within the caucus.
On substantive policy matters, the touchiest topics are likely to be the much-discussed Green New Deal and Medicare for All. On the former, Ocasio-Cortez, who so far has proven quite adept at converting her arguably outsized celebrity into real leverage, led the way in forcing Pelosi to reconstitute a special committee on the climate crisis, which existed the last time Democrats had the majority and which the Republicans disbanded.
Pelosi named seven-term Florida congresswoman Kathy Castor to lead the committee. As I write, the committee hasn’t been officially formed, no other members have been named, and a lot of details about its scope are murky (a source said the membership would be announced by the end of January). It will not develop a Green New Deal agenda per se, and it will lack subpoena power. Castor took some flak for investing in a mutual fund that is mostly made up of holdings in electric companies that use fossil fuels, but she says she sold that off and will accept no contributions from the energy industry. She’s been praised by the major environmental groups. She represents the Tampa area, where the coastline—and the economy—have been ravaged by the red tide outbreak and which is highly vulnerable to hurricanes. The situation into which she’s been thrust represents the perfect opportunity for a heretofore low-profile member to grab a bit of the spotlight.6
On Medicare for All, the House is simply split. A bill cosponsored by 124 Democrats was introduced in the previous Congress. It’s not yet clear how many new members will sign on to it. The freshmen who get the most press, like Ocasio-Cortez, are all firm supporters, but most newly elected members did not campaign on Medicare for All—for practical purposes, the same thing as single-payer health care. This is worth keeping in mind. You would think from what you see on cable news that the entire Democratic freshman class is forming Grundrisse study groups. In fact, at least as many moderates as leftists won seats—probably more, depending on how one classifies them. One congressional expert after the election counted forty-two new Democratic members who opposed single-payer and sixteen who supported it. This was admittedly an anti–single-payer source. Other counts put the pro–single-payer number a bit higher, above twenty. In sum, roughly half the caucus, maybe a little more, backs Medicare for All.
There’s no sign that Pelosi has much taste for single-payer. She believes, and correctly so, that Democrats won by defending Obamacare. Democrats who agree with her will push to expand it, but this will be largely up to the states as they decide whether to accept Medicaid expansion. A handful of states are expected to do so in 2019: Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah as a result of ballot initiatives, and perhaps Kansas, Maine, and Wisconsin, which elected Democratic governors.7 Congressional Democrats will first try to stabilize Obamacare insurance markets, perhaps by expanding subsidies for people in the individual market where premiums remain prohibitively high. They may try to craft some kind of compromise that stops short of Medicare for All but allows a Medicare buy-in for people over fifty or fifty-five, or for people with inadequate coverage options. But this does not seem like an issue on which the left is of a mind to compromise. Ultimately the party will have a health care policy when it has a 2020 nominee, and the policy will be whatever he or she wants it to be.
Those are the contentious issues. On everything else the party is more or less united.
Pelosi gave the symbolic title of H.R. 1 to a large bill devoted to democracy, transparency, and voting rights. The bill calls for expanded ballot-box access, national automatic voter registration, establishment of independent redistricting commissions, restoration of the sections of the Voting Rights Act the Supreme Court has struck down, and other measures. It will work its way through the committee process, chiefly Nadler’s Judiciary Committee, and presumably pass soon, probably on strict party lines.
An infrastructure bill has a chance of attracting some Republican support. On the cable news shows, talking heads nod in earnest agreement when someone cites infrastructure as the one area on which the two parties can agree and pass something. I consider that an optimistic reading of the situation. Infrastructure today is like what arms control was during the cold war—everyone is for it in principle, but they must regrettably oppose this particular version. Democrats want to spend far more than Trump does. During the campaign, infrastructure to Trump essentially meant privatized toll roads. It’s hard to see real common ground between the parties, although a Democratic bill would probably get some backing from a few Republicans in swing districts.
Such a Democratic bill, though—or a “Democrat” bill, according to Republicans who persist in using Joe McCarthy’s old ungrammatical pejorative—will never make it through the Senate. Mitch McConnell will see to that. He will never let anything through the Senate that would allow the Democrats to lay claim to any sort of victory. He proved this most recently on the shutdown. In December, he supported a spending resolution that included no money for a border wall. But by January, because the House Democrats were for it, he was against it.
House Democrats shouldn’t worry about this. They should just pass legislation on the minimum wage, overtime pay, college debt relief, and so on, and let McConnell block it all. Then they have to work to explain why these bills aren’t passing—and that Trump would veto them if they did. The only path to victory in 2020—after what I fear may be a nightmarish presidential primary in which candidates and their backers will turn comparatively small differences into life-or-death matters, far worse than 2016—will involve making sure voters know that these commonsense measures, which 60 to 70 percent of the American people say they want, are not happening because one party is making sure they don’t.
The Democrats’ last big freshman class, the so-called Watergate Babies of 1974, has gone down in history for its numerous legislative accomplishments and, more than that, for changing the culture of Congress for the better. The class is remembered, though, not because of that one election, but because it had staying power—Democrats picked up even more seats in 1976—and saw tough legislative fights on issues like clean air and water through several Congresses. This class’s ambitions will require no less.
—January 24, 2019