Laying Out The Democratic Agenda In The House

Assuming we still have a functioning government and democracy by the time next January rolls around, Democrats will control the legislative and investigative levers in the House of Representatives with a substantial majority. The question the party faces, then, is what to do with that power.

This may seem hard to believe but I think that Pelosi should look at the tenure of Paul Ryan as a roadmap for the next two years. Ryan spent most his time as Speaker getting Republicans to pass bills that he knew would never become law, most of which were even unlikely to get passed by the Republican Senate much less signed by President Obama. Ryan and his GOP majority managed to pass some version of a bill to repeal or dismantle the ACA over 60 times. Similarly, House Republicans passed ludicrous budget and tax bills that even their Senate Republican compatriots routinely ignored. Ryan may not have accomplished much for the country but he did ensure that the country clearly understood what his party stood for.

Pelosi will have that same luxury, passing legislation that will go nowhere but will define the party for 2020. And like Ryan, passing the same bill again and again requires the Senate to respond to it, even peremptorily, and creates press coverage as well as showing commitment. But the important thing is to pass signifying legislation that reflects Democratic priorities and is focused on solidifying the base and splitting the opposition. That means passing progressive legislation that also targets rural red districts and vulnerable 2020 GOP Senate candidates in Colorado, Maine, Iowa, Arizona, North Carolina, and even Kansas and Texas for extra benefits.

At the same time, there should be no thought to coming up with a “compromise” bill with Trump or McConnell that would give them anything they could call a win. The only exceptions to that approach will be keeping the government funded and raising the debt ceiling, both of which should be done as “cleanly” as possible or only with Democratic priorities attached. Similarly, any questions about how Democrats plan to pay for any of the bills they pass or questions about dealing with the rising deficit should be summarily dismissed. Sure, Democrats can find pay-fors for the bills they pass but should in no way feel compelled to do so, especially if they know the legislation is going nowhere in the Senate or at the White House.

The consensus seems to be that there is the potential for a bipartisan infrastructure legislation but, as Matt Yglesias writes, the bill Trump envisions is just a trap for Democrats. Instead, Democrats should pass a bill that focuses on green energy, fortifying the electrical grid, delivering rural broadband, and carbon-reducing programs. Solar and wind projects can clearly be targeted at Iowa, Arizona, Kansas, and Texas, putting pressure on those Senators up for re-election in 2020.

But, well before they get around to infrastructure, there are other critical priorities that Democrats must deal with. First, the issue of electoral reform must be addressed and should contain, at minimum, a restoration of the Voting Rights Act, eliminating partisan gerrymandering, making election day a national holiday, and automatic voter registration, in addition to eliminating or restricting dark money.

There should be a robust package to support workers including increasing the minimum wage and even indexing it to inflation, abolishing mandatory arbitration, passing the Obama overtime rules, cracking down on wage theft, and expanding family and medical leave. They must make efforts to shore up and even expand Obamacare. That may also include at least a separate vote on a Medicare-for-all plan.

Some form of gun control also needs to be passed that at least addresses the background check loopholes, bump stocks, and high capacity magazines. The House must provide protections for DACA recipients and the LBGTQ community and, finally, pass a bill to allow Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate prescription drug prices.

Heavier lifts, but two of my personal favorites, would be to pass Elizabeth Warren’s corporate accountability legislation and vote to expand the number of members in the House. Warren’s plan is to create a new charter for $1 billion companies to take all stakeholder interests, not just shareholder’s, into consideration when making decisions as well as requiring 40% of the board to be employees elected by their peers. I’d also add stronger antitrust enforcement. Expanding the House will make many more seats competitive, reduce the small-state imbalance in the Electoral College, and would hopefully create a stronger connection with all the voters in House districts rather than just donors.

The reality is that most of the “legislating” that actually occurs over the next two years will be done either through Trump’s executive orders or by the courts. That means that Democrats have a real opportunity to define themselves for 2020. They will have a large enough majority that they can afford to lose a few votes and still pass their legislation quickly. With that opportunity, Democrats should, as the saying goes, go big or go home.

Where Democrats in the House really will be able to get traction is with the oversight powers they now have. Trump’s corruption and that of his administration is deep and widespread and there will be multiple targets. But Democrats should take the same approach that they did during the election, focusing on the issues they’ve chosen and not getting distracted by every Trump outrage. My choice would be to highlight the broad theme of corruption. That means exploring Trump’s violations of the Emoluments Clause and campaign finance laws, as well as searching for evidence of Trump’s tax evasion and money laundering. Administration targets like Zinke and Ross may be gone by the time Democrats take control in January but you can be sure that there will be plenty of other targets.

Assuming Mueller is still there, Democrats should let him run with the Russia investigation. Certainly, they can now pass along the perjurious testimony of Don Jr, Stone, and others. Remember that the goal is to position Democrats to win in 2020. That means dragging investigations out until 2020. It also means that impeachment is off the table unless things change markedly and there is some willingness for GOP Senators to seriously consider it, which currently seems highly doubtful.

Finally, Democrats also need to explore Republican policy failures. That includes focusing on the failure of hurricane response not only in Puerto Rico but also in Houston. It means investigating the cruel and apparently intentionally ill-prepared child separation policy. It means exposing the direct links between industry meetings and donations and environmental policy. And there will probably be plenty more to come.

No matter what Democrats do, Trump and the GOP will turn into a highly partisan battle, “war footing” as he clearly said. And Trump will want them to chase one outrage to the next just like the media does. So staying focused on the scandals that reinforce the message of real corruption and legislation that advances the message for 2020 will be absolutely critical.

Originally published at on November 11, 2018.

Thoughtful discussions on politics and economics with some sidelights in photography and astronomy.

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