As a new Democratic majority is sworn into the House of Representatives Thursday, party leaders say campaign finance reform, voting rights and ethics investigations are among their priorities as Democrats prepare to act as a check on the White House.
After two years of Republican dominance in Washington, Democrats are retaking control of the House of Representatives and with it many of the key oversight roles granted to the US legislative branch.
When the representatives are sworn in on Thursday, the new Democratic chairs of more than 20 House committees – some of them among the president’s fiercest critics – will be in a position to compel him or members of his administration to comply with House requests and investigations, from allegations of conspiring with Russia to financial conflicts of interest to government ethics violations.
Speaking at a news conference shortly after Democrats regained the House in November, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who is set to reprise her role as speaker, said that oversight of the Trump administration would be a focus of the new Congress.
“Make no mistake, oversight is a congressional responsibility,” she said. “The administration may try to say oversight is investigation. No, oversight is our responsibility … we will honor our responsibilities.”
But first the US government needs to get up and running again. The political shift in Washington comes as a government shutdown (over the $5 billion that President Donald Trump wants to build a wall on the border with Mexico) is poised to enter its third week.
“Our first order of business will be to end the reckless Trump shutdown and re-open the government,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York in an interview this week with AP.
The president wants to “waste millions in taxpayer dollars on a medieval border wall”, Jeffries said, vowing that Democrats would draw “a line in the stand” to oppose the project, which the party maintains would do little to improve border security.
Shedding light on dark money
House Resolution 1 (HR 1), the first bill slated to be introduced by the new Democratic majority, is a broad proposal focusing on campaign finance reform, anti-corruption measures and voting rights.
In a Washington Post op-ed published in November, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Maryland Representative John Sarbanes said the midterm victory had handed Democrats a mandate to “restore the promise of our democracy – a government of, by and for the people”.
“In the face of a torrent of special-interest dark money, partisan gerrymandering and devious vote-suppression schemes, voters elected a House Democratic majority determined to bring real change to restore our democracy,” they wrote.
“For far too long, big-money and corporate special interests have undermined the will of the people and subverted policymaking in Washington,” they wrote. The close relationship between government and private industry will face new scrutiny, with Democrats proposing “strong new ethics laws to stop officials from using their public office for personal gain”.
“Finally, let’s make it easier, not harder, to vote,” the authors said. Democrats plan to push for a nationwide system of automatic voter registration, measures to protect election infrastructure from foreign interference and end the partisan gerrymandering that is designed to disenfranchise certain voting blocs, often minorities.
The Republicans who still control the Senate, however, are unlikely to pass HR 1 and Trump is equally unlikely to sign it, leaving the Democrats’ policy agenda a non-starter.
But the Democratic focus on big-money corruption is something of a shot across the bow that dares the administration to defend unpopular practices like the influence of corporate money in politics or measures to disenfranchise voters. By laying claim to these issues early on, Democrats may be hoping to portray themselves as the party that will defend “the people” against self-serving special interests.
“As the public observes this HR 1 agenda going forward, we believe it will have great support and that message won’t be lost on the Senate or on the president of the United States,” Pelosi told a news conference discussing the bill in December.
During the midterm campaign season Democrats focused on a number of bread-and-butter issues, those policies that tangibly affect the day-to-day lives of many Americans. Key among them is reforming the Affordable Care Act to lower the prices of prescription drugs, a trillion-dollar plan to create high-wage jobs rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure and tackling income inequality.
“In the years following the Great Recession (2009-2012), 91 percent of all new wealth created accrued to the top one percent of earners,” the Democratic Party notes on its website, vowing to “build an economy that works for all – not just those at the top”.
The party has also said it will try to work with Republicans on passing a bill expanding background checks on those looking to purchase guns and legislation protecting the so-called “Dreamers” – those undocumented immigrants brought into the United States as children, many of whom have lived there most of their lives.
But both gun control and immigration have long been political sticking points, with the parties generally unable to find common ground. The Democrats’ best hopes for finding bipartisan support may lie in an infrastructure bill, with rebuilding transportation links a proposal for which both parties – as well as Trump – have expressed support.
Trouble brewing in committee
Even if the Democratic agenda is destined to be stonewalled, Trump and his party are facing a reckoning. Some of the president’s most vocal critics are now in control of key House committees with wide-ranging powers to investigate, subpoena and compel the public release of documents.
As the new head of the House Financial Services Committee, California Representative Maxine Waters will have the power to subpoena Trump’s tax returns. She has also vowed to investigate why Deutsche Bank lent money to Trump when most other banks declined. Deutsche Bank – which Waters has called “one of the biggest money laundering banks in the world” – was fined $630 million in 2017 by US and UK financial authorities for its role in Russian money laundering.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller has also subpoenaed the records of Trump’s Deutsche Bank loans, millions of dollars of which are still outstanding.
Waters also opposes Trump’s moves to deregulate banks and other financial institutions and wants to expand the work of the US consumer protection agency.
She has repeatedly and publicly clashed with the president, and has said she believes that when all is revealed about the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia it will lead to Trump’s impeachment.
With Democrats now in the majority, Representative Adam Schiff of California will take over as chairman of the House’s Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. His predecessor, Republican Devin Nunes, was repeatedly accused of running interference for Trump while serving on the committee, which was investigating Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election. The panel wrapped up its work in August – saying it had found “no evidence” of coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow – over the vehement objections of Schiff and its other Democratic members.
Schiff pulled no punches in describing the investigations a Democrat-led House should launch in an October op-ed for the Washington Post, citing “credible” suspicions that the US president might be compromised by a foreign power.
“There are serious and credible allegations the Russians may possess financial leverage over the president, including perhaps the laundering of Russian money through his businesses,” Schiff wrote.
“It would be negligent to our national security not to find out.”
In a CBS interview last month, Schiff was asked about claims the Trump team may have committed campaign finance violations linked to hush money payments made to porn star Stormy Daniels. “There’s a very real prospect that on the day Donald Trump leaves office the Justice Department may indict him, that he may be the first president in quite some time to face the real prospect of jail time,” Schiff said.
Democrat Elijah E. Cummings will take over the leadership of the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has jurisdiction over nearly all government activities. In a statement issued shortly after it became clear Democrats had retaken the House, Cummings said he wanted to focus on improving people’s daily lives, by tackling the sharp rise in prescription drug costs, as well as investigating corruption within the Trump administration.
“President Trump has not been held accountable,” Cummings told the Washington Post in an interview just hours after winning re-election. “We want to figure out if the president is acting in the interests of the American people or in his own financial interest. I would consider it legislative malpractice not to do it.”
Trump will face other challenges from Appropriations Committee chair Nita Lowey, who is likely to deny his $5 billion request for border wall funding, and Frank Pallone of the Energy and Commerce Committee, who has demanded answers on what he called the Trump administration’s “illegal efforts to undermine” the Affordable Care Act. Representative Richard E. Neal, the next chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has also said he plans to ask for Trump’s tax returns but has acknowledged that the matter may end up in court.
Incoming Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler has a long history of taking on Trump. As a local assemblyman in the 1980s, he fought to stop the celebrity real-estate developer from building a 150-storey building in his New York district.
Nadler has already stated his intention to investigate Trump’s decision to fire attorney general Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from overseeing the Mueller probe, and subpoena acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. Critics believe Trump removed Sessions so he could install an attorney general who might prove helpful to the president as he faces an investigation into his team’s dealings with Russia.
Nadler also wants committee hearings on the administration’s policy of separating families and detaining minors at the southern border.
Notably, the power to launch impeachment proceedings lies with Nadler’s Judiciary Committee. But he cautioned in November that it is still “too early” to talk impeachment, telling The New York Times Magazine that it would be a “momentous step” with “real consequences”.
“You don’t want to tear the country apart,” Nadler said. “You don’t want a situation where for the next 30 years half the country is saying, ‘We won the election; you stole it from us.’?”
Nevertheless, he said, the Trump presidency has posed “real challenges to the democratic norms that we haven’t seen the likes of since the Civil War”, adding: “we have a real crisis now”.
“The American people have demanded accountability from their government…” Nadler wrote on Twitter in response to the Democrats retaking the House.
Trump “may not like it, but he and his administration will be held accountable to our laws and to the American people”.