Democrats in House focus on investigations
Lawmakers will hold hearings on Trump officials and programs, while working on gun and pay equality bills.
Democrats this week will hold nearly half a dozen investigative hearings into Trump administration officials and programs, and convene even more panels to discuss policy issues such as climate change, universal background checks for gun purchases, and campaign finance reform — all partisan initiatives.
The rollout of the House Democrats’ agenda was delayed by the 35-day partial government shutdown over President Trump’s demand for money to build a wall along the southern border. That threat hasn’t completely subsided. Lawmakers are trying to craft a deal to avert another shutdown by Feb. 15.
But newly empowered Democrats, particularly members of the energetic freshman class, are ready to get moving.
“He’s not ready for it at all,” fifth-term Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) said of Trump, who spent the first two years of his presidency dealing with a Congress controlled by Republicans. “He calls it presidential harassment. He doesn’t get the basic process [of congressional oversight]. So that’s the part that’s scary.”
The Democratic agenda will include three House floor votes on major bills by the end of March, according to tentative plans shared by Democratic sources. The bills are HR 1, a plan to reform the campaign finance system and enact changes to the elections process; HR 7, a bill that would attempt to ensure equal pay for men and women; and HR 8, a bill to require universal background checks before people can buy guns.
All three have been championed by Democrats, but stand little chance of getting support in the GOP-controlled Senate.
That may not matter to Democrats, who hope to use the legislation to make a case to voters ahead of the 2020 election. The investigations, they say, are part of their constitutionally empowered oversight of the executive branch.
Two Democratic-led panels will investigate how the administration has spent money — one will look into financial decisions made during the shutdown and another will review spending on the 2010 healthcare law known as Obamacare. Another panel will investigate the administration’s family-separation policy at the border.
They’ll hold a hearing on presidential tax returns, kicking off a lengthy process that some hope could lead to the release of Trump’s tax filings.
Acting Atty. Gen. Matt Whitaker is slated to testify Friday, making him the first major administration official to come before the House since Democrats obtained the majority.
Trump on Tuesday evening cast aspersions on such efforts, deriding “ridiculous partisan investigations” in his State of the Union speech and warning that legislation is unlikely to be enacted while investigations are underway.
“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” he told lawmakers in his address.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and other top Democrats have dismissed the idea, arguing that they can do both, and the president should be able to as well.
“One of Congress’ main roles under Article 1 of the Constitution is checks and balances,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who is leading the investigation into the administration’s border policies as chairwoman of the Energy and Commerce investigation subcommittee. “We’re going to do them in a very responsible and thorough way. I don’t think it should impact any bipartisan [legislation].”
Still, Democrats, particularly veteran lawmakers who have been in the minority and without subpoena power for eight years, are eager to hold the administration accountable.
“I’m going to pursue this investigation until I get answers,” DeGette said. “If they come in and can answer our questions [at our first hearing], that’s great. Otherwise we will continue.”
And they say the White House shouldn’t be surprised by the wave of Democrats demanding information through letters and, potentially, subpoenas.
“All of this is public,” said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Menlo Park), who wants to see the president’s tax returns. “There’s a road map for the administration [in our campaign pledges]. There are no secrets about what our agenda is.”
Democrats began to make their case Wednesday. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the new chairman of the powerful House Oversight Committee, recounted in a hearing on HR 1 the deathbed promise he made to his mother to protect voting rights.
“This is not Russia. This is the United States of America,” he said. “I will fight until the death to make sure every citizen, whether they’re the Green Party, the freedom party, whether they’re Democrat, whether they’re Republican, whatever, has that right to vote.”
The House is also starting work on two of the potentially bipartisan pieces of legislation this Congress could produce. A committee will hear testimony this week about an infrastructure bill. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and other public officials are slated to testify. And several panels are planning or have already started hearings on legislation to reduce prescription drug prices. Those efforts are in relatively preliminary stages.
The legislators also floated the idea of voting on a proposal for the House to enter a lawsuit filed by Republican attorneys general against Obamacare. But it’s unclear whether the House wants to deal with the legal repercussions of getting involved in a lawsuit already being defended by states such as California.
Such a vote could embarrass Republicans, who would be torn between voting against Obamacare and voting against the law’s popular protections for people with preexisting conditions.
Democrats still need to sort out whether they will force members to vote on issues that divide the party internally, such as Medicare for all, an initiative that is popular with liberal Democrats but less so with more moderate voters. Floor votes on such proposals could oblige members to take a position and cause rifts within the party. And even if such legislation were to pass the House, it would die in the Senate.
To illustrate the risk, some Democrats say that a 2009 vote on cap-and-trade legislation, though it never became law, nonetheless played a role in major losses for the party in the following year’s election. But other Democrats argue that bold ideas are what won the majority in 2018 and deserve to get the recognition of a floor vote.
“We as a Democratic caucus need to understand there is political diversity,” Bass said, adding that Democrats in Los Angeles and California don’t always recognize that other parts of the country aren’t as progressive.
“I’m concerned that in some of the seats that we won, that some of the activists might not be entirely realistic about where the members have to be,” she added.
Democratic leaders are starting the year with initiatives that are widely supported within the party. One of their bills would require anyone seeking to buy a firearm to undergo a background check. Many Democrats made the requirement central to their campaigns.
“Democrats understand how important this is to the American people. We’ve heard from the people, the people want this addressed and we are doing just that,” said Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), a sponsor of the bill.
Thompson was inspired to work on the issue by the Sandy Hook shooting and has been trying to persuade his Republican colleagues to hold hearings in the six years since. “They refused to do it, so finally we are going to get our hearing,” he said.
Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) hopes his campaign reform bill, which would tighten finance and ethics rules as well as expand voting rights, becomes “the new brand of the Democratic party.”
As with Thompson’s bill, Republicans in the Senate are expected to block Sarbanes’ legislation from becoming law. But that doesn’t faze him.
“If we can get that passed in the House, then we can spend the next two years using that as a rallying cry,” Sarbanes said.