Democrats Must Leverage Majority Power Carefully

Now that the midterm elections have concluded, the Congress will enter its lame-duck session for the remainder of 2018, during which the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives will consider a legislative path for the left’s first 100 days in the majority.

To probable incoming Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi and likely House Majority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, I advise measured urgency. On the whole, during the midterm campaign, Democratic candidates remained focused on issues that mattered to their constituents — health care and jobs, incomes and opportunity, fair treatment for all. I trust that as much as we rightly long to counterattack, Pelosi understands that long-term success will be built on issues that matter to the electorate.

The 38 to 40 seats that Democrats gained in the “People’s House” represented the largest uptick in Democratic power since the elections of 1974 — when Republicans were existentially damaged by the Watergate scandal, President Gerald Ford’s pardoning of Richard Nixon, an energy crisis, runaway inflation and the “six-year itch.” It’s a momentous achievement that Democrats swung the composition of the House by this much.

But as I emphasized in last week’s column, the elections themselves were not the end game — the most important component of regaining a majority is how that power is leveraged, and there is every chance that Democrats could badly blunder. Democrats will have to confront several questions in the coming months, and the answers they provide will largely determine the future character of the party.

First, how will Democrats find an equilibrium between advancing a progressive legislative agenda and conducting oversight of the occupants of the White House and disciplining them for their flagrant disregard for the rule of law? Of course, as with walking and chewing bubble gum, Democrats need not choose all one or all the other. But getting the balance right between lawmaking and holding Trump accountable to the Constitution will be critical. Now — perhaps more than ever given the hostility of acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker — they must protect special counsel Robert Mueller as he writes his final report. We can sleep more soundly at night with the knowledge that the blue majority in the House will make it impossible for Trump’s lackeys to bury Mueller’s inquiry. Democrats can subpoena his findings.

At the same time, a Democratic majority charging out of the gate with investigative hearings would be unwise for several reasons. Solid, thoughtful investigations take time to organize; quick, disorganized hearings would look political and undermine the credibility of later, carefully-considered ones. Committee chairmen should also carefully time inquiries so they do not stumble over one another and fail to penetrate the public consciousness. Neither should they clumsily kneecap legislative efforts by giving breathless and short-sighted attention to every investigative hearing.

As tempting as zealous investigative hearings will be — and trust me, I have as much, if not more, pent-up anger and frustration as the next Democrat — Democrats would fail their base if they lacked a focused agenda of quickly actionable legislative priorities for their first 100 days in the majority. Think about it: Democratic congressional candidates did not win by chanting “lock him up.” What united far-left progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with their less-ideological brethren who won in last week’s contests was a determination to demonstrate that intelligently-orchestrated, good-faith policies can make life better for the vast majority.

This means that the increasingly-diverse Democratic Party, from Blue Dog Democrats to Democratic Socialists, will have to compromise amongst themselves. Steps in the right direction must include policies that grant more people stable access to affordable health care; more people an unimpeded right to vote; more people a sense of safety from deportation and security in their new home in the U.S; more people confidence in the integrity of our democratic system. In the first 100 days, I would like to see the Democrats bring to the floor a bill that patches up the Affordable Care Act, a safeguard for the broken Voting Rights Act and a clean fix for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Sure, it is unlikely that this legislation will pass the Senate, much less the president’s desk. But it is crucial that Democrats’ closing arguments in 2018 — health care, jobs, electoral fairness — be their opening arguments in 2019.

All of this depends on perhaps the biggest question: whether or not Democrats choose the right leadership. Pelosi has stated that she is “100 percent” confident that she will be elected Speaker of the House, despite the opposition she knows exists within the more left-wing arm of the caucus. I certainly have qualms about the wisdom of her retaking the gavel, but she is exceptional at keeping the caucus in line, a skill akin to herding cats.

She deserves credit for overseeing the passage in the House of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and obviously the Affordable Care Act — she’s really, really good at whipping votes. There also isn’t an obvious contender to challenge her. Only three of the incoming Democratic committee chairmen, the current Ranking Members, have held that position before, and more than half of the caucus has never been a part of the majority.

These next two years, in which Democrats will have a small but decisive check on the errant presidency, will be too precious to have a new Speaker of the House learning on-the-job. Pelosi’s combination of realism and vision will be needed at every turn. However, I urge the 78-year-old, along with 79-year-old Whip Hoyer, to use the next two years as a transitional period to hand over the gavel in 2020. Who will succeed her, I cannot say.

The election has been won, but the race is far from done. The Democratic majority could be lost in an instant next election, no matter how carefully calibrated, poll-tested and focused-grouped legislators’ paths are. Someday, the Democrats will have to hand the gavel back to Republicans. It’s impossible to say what will happen in the next two years, but based on the last two, we know how fleeting the status quo can be. Every Democrat elected last week should govern like they get only one shot.