The Democrats' New Power Tools
Bloomberg Businessweek Middle East|16 November, 2018
The Democrats' New Power Tools

The House majority will go after Trump’s agenda with instruments perfected by their GOP rivals.

Joshua Green

The Nov. 6 elections ended two years of unfettered Republican control of Washington and brought the curtain down on what will likely be—despite its exhausting, near-constant chaos— the smoothest period of Donald Trump’s presidency. Really. Things will get even rockier from here.

The Democrats coming to Washington are younger, more diverse, more female, and more liberal than before. They’ll control the U.S. House of Representatives and the subpoena power it grants them—and they’ll be mindful that voters sent them to Congress to act as a check on Trump.

The Republicans who survived the midterm purge are older, whiter, and Trumpier than before. They were sent to Washington not to check Trump, but to supercharge his agenda. The new Republican senators who defeated red-state Democrats in places such as North Dakota and Missouri won’t forget that the president’s closing message of angry nativism propelled them to victory. Even in the House, the far-right, pro-Trump Freedom Caucus expanded its power within the GOP caucus, because practically every Republican with bipartisan inclinations—and there weren’t many—was defeated. Come January, it will be as hard to spot a moderate Republican on Capitol Hill as a yeti.

Predicting the political future can be futile, especially in the age of Trump, when the national agenda can hinge on the morning’s Fox & Friends panel. But one certainty apparent even to the president’s most ardent supporters is that Trump alone will no longer set that agenda, as he’s been accustomed to doing since he jumped into the presidential race in the summer of 2015. The Democratic House will make sure of that.

“Between appropriations and oversight, between the gavel and the subpoenas, they’re going to grind the Trump program to a halt,” says Steve Bannon, Trump’s erstwhile chief strategist. “It’ll be the Moscow Show Trials every day. It’ll be Stalingrad.”

Trump’s administration offers a bounty for Democrats to pursue. “The waste, fraud, and abuse is plain to see,” says Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who’s in line to become chairman of the powerful House Oversight Committee, which has an almost unlimited purview to launch investigations and demand documents and testimony from the administration. But it could backfire if, instead of exercising accountability, Democrats use their subpoena power to haul Trump officials before Congress simply for the purpose of political theatre.

One reason Trump supporters such as Bannon fear Democratic oversight is that Republicans have spent years broadening and weaponising the already formidable powers of the House majority party. For decades after Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare, the Oversight Committee was run as a gentlemanly partnership between the parties. To guard against abuse, the chairman typically had to gain the consent of the ranking member to issue a subpoena or else win a committee vote. Republicans changed this rule in 1997 to invest their chairman, Dan Burton of Indiana, with unilateral subpoena power, something he employed with astonishing zeal as he tried to take down President Bill Clinton. Burton issued 1,052 unilateral subpoenas during his five-year chairmanship, according to a calculation by the committee’s minority staff. In 2015, Republicans changed the rules again, expanding unilateral subpoena power to 14 committee chairmen to help them go after Barack Obama’s administration.


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16 November, 2018