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US Midterm Elections

What Can the Democratic House Accomplish By Oversight?

November 19, 2018 | by PAUL J. QUIRK

Exterior of the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Gryffindor via commons.wikimedia.org, CC0/public domain.

Leaders of the new Democratic Party majority in the U.S. House of Representatives promise to conduct oversight and investigations that will hold President Trump “accountable” for his conduct. Indeed, pundits observed that the midterm result will change Trump’s life – very much for the worse.

Some speculate that the Democrats may push investigating too far, appear to be harassing the president, and produce a voter backlash in the 2020 elections. Realistically, critical oversight and investigations will hurt Trump and the Republicans, not the Democrats, politically. The real difficulties for the Democrats are that Trump may attempt to withhold cooperation or simply ignore the adverse publicity. In most respects, the conditions for consequential legislative oversight are nearly ideal. In the first place, the public has a large appetite for investigations.  Republicans investigated Hillary Clinton almost continuously – Whitewater, Benghazi, emails –for two decades, despite never finding significant wrongdoing. Certainly, if investigations of Trump produce significant results, a solid majority of the public will support them.

The current Republican-dominated Congress, through concerted neglect of the oversight role, has in effect created a long backlog of Trump-related investigations. Its refusal to investigate the president has been unprecedented – even in circumstances with the presidency, House, and Senate all controlled by the same party. A polarized Congress has treated same-party presidents ever more gently in recent years. But it would have been inconceivable in any prior Congress that the executive branch would profoundly mismanage a disaster-relief effort, resulting in thousands of lost lives, without prompting a single congressional hearing to understand the failure. But that is what happened in the case of the Trump administration’s failed response to the devastation of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria. The current Congress has simply closed down shop when it comes to oversight of the executive branch.

Matters for Investigation

In several areas, the necessary committee work has been facilitated by heroic achievements of investigative journalism, by federal or state investigators whose discoveries have been reported in court documents or by public statements of key participants. Some relevant evidence has appeared in nationally televised remarks by Mr. Trump. Arguably, he essentially confessed to obstruction of justice when he said, during an interview with ABC News anchor Lester Holt, that he had fired FBI director James Comey because of “the Russia thing.”

Sometime soon, Special Counsel Robert Mueller is expected to make a report on his investigation. He may or may not accuse Mr. Trump of anything that he or others will call an impeachable offense. But it beggars the imagination to suppose that the report will not provide plenty of grist for productive and important congressional hearings. House investigators will have no risk of appearing to have launched “a fishing expedition.”

Importantly, the kinds of allegations that the House may make against Mr. Trump and his associates are likely to appear credible and important to most of the public. Some possible allegations would involve straightforward financial crimes: money-laundering, tax evasion, misuse of campaign or charitable-foundation funds, receiving campaign contributions from foreign donors, and receiving personal or business income from foreign governments while holding office. Such allegations are simply about the money.

Presumably, the Democratic House will also investigate various policy matters. In many areas, Trump’s policies have had identifiable victims: individuals who have lost health care; businesses and employees that have suffered from trade wars; middle- and working-class families that received no benefits from corporate and upper-income tax cuts; and businesses hampered by crumbling infrastructure. The most powerful testimony will come from victims of the Puerto Rican hurricane disaster and the infamous family-separation policy.

Of course, House investigations of Trump policies will reflect a liberal Democratic perspective.  But as the 2018 report from the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Index (to which I contributed) indicates, Trump’s first year degraded the United States’ policy performance sharply in numerous areas – economic policy, tax policy, budget policy, health, social inclusion, integration, environmental policy, global social policy, and global environmental policy, among others. If the Democratic House investigates Trump’s policies, many of the findings will speak to the concerns of a wide range of the American public.

The Russia Investigations

The central elements of the House investigations will almost certainly be the matters of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, questions of collusion on the part of the Trump campaign and possibly Trump himself, and issues of cover-up and obstruction of justice in relation to these offenses. The facts about the relevant transactions in the Russia investigations – who met with whom, when, with what result, and so on – can be daunting in their complexity. But there are also readily understandable episodes. Donald Trump, Jr. reportedly believes that he may be indicted for perjury for his false testimony to a congressional committee that he had not told the senior Trump about a meeting with Russians during the campaign. If Donald, Jr. were required to testify at a House hearing about why he gave that false testimony (or to invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege to avoid doing so), the public would understand its significance.

There would be little danger for the Democrats that such investigations would somehow elicit public sympathy for Trump and the Republicans. At a minimum, they would help to solidify the majority that already disapproves of Trump, and probably would expand that majority at least modestly. They should improve the Democrats’ chances in the 2020 elections.

The Democrats’ limitations

The main limitations of the House Democrats’ oversight agenda are then two-fold: First, it cannot stop any of Trump’s executive or administrative actions, provided that he is willing to endure the exposure and criticism. He may be content to serve out his term with support only from his apparently unmovable base. Second, and more ominous, Trump and his administration, possibly with support from many or most Republicans, may refuse to cooperate with the House proceedings.  Trump administration officials may decline to show up at hearings or to produce information demanded by subpoena.

The House could sue for compliance in the federal courts, and would almost certainly win. If Trump and the Republicans still refused to cooperate, the country would be in profoundly serious constitutional crisis. In any case, the Republicans would be virtually admitting the alleged incompetence or corruption, as the 2020 elections approached, and they would own the responsibility for the crisis, indefinitely.

The effects of the Democrats’ control of the House on the Trump presidency will roll out over the next two years. Trump’s legislative agenda is effectively dead, as of January. His ability to act unilaterally through executive orders or administrative regulations will immediately be inhibited, perhaps dramatically, by the increased public scrutiny that critical House oversight will produce. He and many of his senior aides will be forced to spend most of their time defending themselves against credible charges of corruption and incompetence. Trump may face an impeachment process, although actual removal is unlikely. Finally, all these circumstances point toward a high likelihood of unified Democratic control of government after the 2020 elections. 

Paul J. Quirk holds the Phil Lind Chair in US Politics at the University of British Columbia. He is co-author of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s SGI Country Report USA.

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