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Impeachment isn’t the only obstacle to legislative wins for Congress in 2020

‘Investigate and legislate’ playbook may not work for Democrats again

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony on Wednesday. Democrats have said they can “investigate and legislate,” but that could be harder to pull off this year. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony on Wednesday. Democrats have said they can “investigate and legislate,” but that could be harder to pull off this year. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

On Dec. 18, the House voted to impeach President Donald Trump. On Dec. 19, the House approved a major rewrite of a trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. Those two events, just 24 hours apart, marked the culmination of a strategy Democrats have sought to execute since the day they took control of the House last year: investigate and legislate.

“Our view is we are here to make things better for our constituents and stand up for the constitutional oaths that we took,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, a freshman Democrat from New Jersey who ousted a Republican in 2018. “Those things are not in conflict with one another. And by the way, that’s always been true. When Nixon was being impeached, Congress passed a major infrastructure bill. When Clinton was being impeached, the Congress passed major legislation.”

Whether that strategy resonates with the rest of the country will be a whole other matter. In less than 10 months, voters will head to the polls to choose their president and a new Congress. According to a FiveThirtyEight aggregation of polls, roughly 47 percent of Americans support Trump’s removal from office, a figure that has held steady since October.

But the Democrats’ gambit seems like a tricky thing to pull off: Sure, we can work with a guy we voted to kick out of office. Republicans, meanwhile, continue to complain that Democrats have wasted valuable time on impeachment instead of working on major legislation like an infrastructure bill.

As New York GOP Rep. Tom Reed, who co-chairs the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, put it: “I’m not overly optimistic that this is going to all of a sudden be a ‘kumbaya’ moment, especially with impeachment and the other toxicity in the water here in Washington.”

Complicating matters further is heightened tensions with Iran following a U.S. drone strike Jan. 3 that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. That attack prompted a vote in the House on Jan. 9, limiting Trump’s ability to wage war in Iran. A Senate vote on a War Powers resolution was not acted on before the chamber began its impeachment proceedings, and when consideration of it happens is uncertain.

There are some observers who think Democrats are succeeding, at least for now. “I think they’ve done a really good job … of balancing oversight of the administration and passing a ton of legislation,” said Gabe Horwitz, a former aide to several moderate Democrats and now a senior vice president at Third Way, a centrist think tank.

There were signs of progress at the end of last year following 11 months of nothing much. Democrats and Republicans came together to pass the annual defense policy bill, which included the establishment of Trump’s long-sought Space Force and paid family and medical leave for government workers. A record-breaking spending package was enacted, which included the repeal of three taxes levied by the 2010 health care law.

“I think the big issue [in 2020] is there’s going to be a vice grip on impeachment, and the 2020 election,” Horwitz said. “That doesn’t leave much room or appetite for legislating.”

Neil Bradley, a former aide to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is now an executive vice president with the Chamber of Commerce, mostly agrees: “Clearly, they can both legislate and deal with impeachment. Whether they will, again [in 2020], I think remains to be seen. There’s no shortage of work to be done.”

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On the table

So what kind of work can be done? Bradley and others point to a number of items left over from last session that could get action this year, including proposals to lower the cost of prescription drugs and ending what are known as surprise medical bills. A marijuana banking bill that passed the House with wide bipartisan support could get action in the Senate. In addition, the Supreme Court is set to decide on a program for “Dreamers,” unauthorized immigrants who were brought to America when they were children. The decision could prompt congressional action. The Federal Trade Commission has asked for stronger enforcement ability on data privacy and data breaches, and there’s a chance something could be enacted on that front. Meanwhile, a direct outcome of the investigations of Trump could mean an overhaul of surveillance laws, if Republicans are to be believed.

And yet there is almost no hope on big issues at the top of voters’ minds. One example can be found in the long-stalled reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which expired in February but whose programs have been funded through spending bills. Democrats have been pushing to take guns away from domestic abusers — a provision was included in an April bill that passed the House, but the National Rifle Association and Republicans have come out against closing what Democrats commonly refer to as the “boyfriend loophole.” Talks have broken down, and it’s unclear what, if anything, will happen.

The only noteworthy gun measure that passed last year was a provision tucked into the year-end spending package that allotted $25 million to explicitly allow the government, for the first time since 1996, to research gun violence.

Outlook: gloomy

Some analysts think that what’s happened with appropriations is a bad sign for this year. A deal to lift budgetary caps was struck in July but instead of reaching quick agreement, Congress dragged out negotiations until the year’s end. “The fact that we had a deal on the caps in place over the summer, and it’s taken them until December to actually wrap things up, I don’t think is a particularly encouraging sign of how that process will go,” said Molly E. Reynolds, a Brookings Institution scholar.

For years, civil libertarians have been calling for changes to the country’s surveillance laws, and that effort got a boost from, of all things, the investigation into Russia and Trump. The release of a report from the inspector general for the Justice Department found questionable actions on the part of the FBI in bringing information to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in an effort to surveil Carter Page, a former Trump campaign official.

Another consideration is the host of high-profile members who are heading out the door via retirement, some of whom have big-ticket items on their wish list.

Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has been seeking an update to the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which has not been reauthorized since 2008. The law deals with student loans, aid and other provisions that have been hot-button issues for Democrats running for president. Indeed, two members of the HELP committee — Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — have plans that call for canceling student loan debt.

Still, action on a big overhaul seems unlikely. Bradley, who focuses on education issues, believes there could be some movement on vocational training and other education and labor issues. “I could see a skinny higher ed” bill, he said.

Some in Congress believe impeachment isn’t helping.

Following a failed committee vote on a pipeline safety reauthorization measure in November, Sam Graves of Missouri, the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, concluded that impeachment was to blame. He sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and complained in a statement that Democrats’ “partisan impeachment and anti-Trump agenda is infecting even the most bipartisan work this Congress does.”

Graves and other Republicans’ main objection on the bill was an amendment that requires the General Services Administration to conduct an annual audit of properties leased to private parties. Republicans saw it as a targeted attack at Trump, whose Washington hotel would be affected by the bill. They were right, as Democrats trumpeted that provision in a news release following the vote.

And yet there are those who insist that impeachment is not the disease, but the cure. Pointing to the success of the United States-Mexico-Canada trade pact vote, Malinowski, the New Jersey Democrat, posited that impeachment is “making bipartisan legislation more likely, not less likely.”

“It makes members more determined to demonstrate to their constituents that Congress can legislate,” he said. “And I think it also puts the president in that position where he is more eager to show that he can actually govern.”

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