Democrats achieved a resounding victory in the 2018 midterm elections, which will allow them to seat enough party members to assume control of the U.S. House of Representatives in January. These seats should provide a powerful check on President Trump and Republicans, whose control of both the House and the Senate had allowed them to advance their own legislative agenda. Now Democrats will again have a voice in governing, but the party is at a crossroads on how to use this power effectively and responsibly in an increasingly polarized and erratic political climate.
Some Democrats have already made plans for how they believe the next two years should look — inundating Trump and executive branch officials with House hearings, investigations and subpoenas. Yes, there is a wide range of alarming possibilities for potential investigations that could even lay the groundwork for impeachment — Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia, his violation of election laws, his refusal to make public his tax returns and his disaffinity for the truth quickly come to mind.
These investigations could have positive consequences — bringing to light unknowns about Trump and his stalwarts, squaring public opinion with reality, re-enforcing the rule of law and halting and potentially punishing any illegal practices by Trump and those in his administration. Yet I believe Democratic leaders of the House should exercise extreme caution when bringing about House investigations or utilizing other tactics which may stymie legislative progress. It is manifest that an onslaught of investigations will lead to the hardening of party divisions and the creation of fodder for Republicans to censure Democrats. It is not the proper function of either political party to cause stagnation. For the good of the United States, the new House should assume the moral high ground, avoid indulgent retribution and instead act constructively.
Most pertinently, the House mechanisms for accountability do not promise Democrats’ desired outcome but would further exacerbate partisanship in and beyond Washington. To begin, the subpoena of executive branch officials — ordering someone to attend a House Committee hearing or produce information — is the beginning of an arduous process with no guarantees. A president can specifically assert “executive privilege” and refuse to comply with the subpoena on national security grounds. Others without such sweeping privilege can simply refuse to comply, which begins a long legal battle rather than a swift avenue of recourse. Congress can have the House Sergeant At Arms physically arrest the offender, put them on trial in front of the House and detain them in a quaint jail on the Capitol property. But this is not the goal, and while this idea may seem tempting, it has today become taboo and politically lamentable to resort to such an extreme measure. The House may also attempt to enforce the subpoena in the federal courts under the 1978 Ethics in Government Act. This may seem like a victory. However, defense tactics will be geared toward tying up cases while awaiting the expiration of House members’ two-year terms in the hopes of a more favorable House climate or an agenda shifted away from investigations. If the lower courts rule that the subpoena is enforceable, the case could even go to the U.S. Supreme Court, whose current conservative majority might expand the executive branch’s immunity from congressional oversight. And time goes on.
All the while, Trump will be able to stoke the fire against Democrats. He has already attacked the idea of investigations, tweeting, “If the Democrats think they are going to waste Taxpayer Money investigating us at the House level, then we will likewise be forced to consider investigating them for all of the leaks of Classified Information, and much else, at the Senate level. Two can play that game!” While Trump does not have a complete grasp of the capabilities of the executive branch, he can utilize his veto power to make it harder for the House to pass legislation. He will demonize Democrats in the eyes of his supporters by crying “witch hunt.” A drawn-out process will only give Trump years of material to make Democrats look like weak power-grabbers and pull those tired of politics into his camp. Again, news cycle after news cycle will be focused on Trump, while meaningful legislative change, if attained at all, will be buried in the back sections.
Lastly, Trump, never an ideologue, has proved himself a capricious politician willing to switch opinions or radically alter his alliances at the drop of a hat. He has already made a nod to passing bipartisan legislation on a number of common grounds — health care, pharmaceutical drug prices, trade, the environment and infrastructure. Passage of these bills would be valuable to the country, not just to Democrats looking to make progressive change in an increasingly deadlocked Congress. However, with Trump taking a “warlike posture” stoked by House investigations, he will view Democrats as the enemy he must destroy rather than a potential ally. This could be a missed opportunity for Democrats who could put their distaste aside to make a meaningful impact on citizens’ lives.
I do not think we should ignore past and future woes and potential crimes committed by Trump and his ilk. At the same time, I do not believe House investigations are the way to unite our country or effectively hold Trump accountable. Democrats need to think about the consequences of inundating an erratic and already-challenged president with congressional investigations. Who knows what he might do or fail to do? Tit for tat is not a reason, nor is juicy news. The only legitimate reason is producing benefits that exceed the costs.
The cost of overwhelming the administration with investigations will be high. The process is cumbersome and the result is by no means settled. But it is assured that time and energy of every legislator on both sides of the aisle will be co-opted for at least the next two years. The Trump knot of illogic and lack of productivity will continue and many Democrats will be painted with the same brush. This is an opportunity for Democrats to show that they recognize their responsibility; that they are focused on the future of the United States and not just their political affiliation or political self-interest; that they know how and why the American system works and will make it do so again. The country is watching.
Emily Miller ’19 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.