It’s far from certain that Democrats will retake the House of Representative in November. Yes, the president’s party typically loses seats in Congress in the first midterm elections after his election, and American liberals are unusually motivated this year. Nonetheless, it’s possible that President Donald Trump’s strategy of riling his base over immigration, combined with structural advantages like gerrymandering, will allow Republicans to withstand what would otherwise be a blue wave.
But let’s say Democrats manage to eke out enough seats to retake the House, and perhaps even the Senate. Will they follow the Republicans’ lead by wielding their legislative power to the fullest possible extent? Will they rely on obstruction and delaying tactics to constrain the Trump administration as much as the Constitution allows?
The answer appears to be no. In recent months, some Democratic lawmakers have even suggested that instead of exerting maximal political force, they may try to diminish their own power.
The New York Times reported last weekend on a reform effort by a group of congressmen that unironically calls itself the Problem Solvers Caucus. The 24 Republican and 24 Democratic members of the group are hoping to revivify the House’s moribund legislative process and bring a spirit of bipartisanship to the chamber. To that end, they’re backing a set of proposed rule changes called “The Speaker Project,” put forth by the bipartisan group No Labels.
Some of the proposals are worthwhile: ending Congress’s ban on earmarks, which were denounced by good-government folks for years but actually served a useful role in the legislative process; holding regular Q&As between presidents and lawmakers, similar to the British Parliament’s weekly Prime Minister’s Questions; and allowing congressmen to anonymously force up-and-down votes on popular legislation, thus circumventing the House speaker without incurring his wrath.
But the central proposal—to require that a speaker be elected with bipartisan support—would impose a major hurdle for a Democratic House majority to overcome before it can govern.
“The next Congress should change the rules for electing a speaker,” No Label’s centrist manifesto states. “The new minimum number of votes required should equal the majority party’s total membership plus five. Theoretically, this could require a speaker to win support from only five opposition party members. But in recent years, several House Republicans and Democrats have refused to back their party’s nominee, so it’s quite possible that a would-be speaker would have to win the backing of numerous minority party members.”
That’s possible, but the more likely result—if the past decade is any indication—would be greater obstruction in the House. This proposed rule would allow a unified Republican minority to effectively veto any potential Democratic speaker, even if that person had received an overall majority of the votes from House members (by receiving every Democratic vote). Cynical observers may also note that since the House’s rules are rewritten after every election, there’s no guarantee that a future Republican majority would allow Democrats to exercise similar influence over a position that’s third in line for the presidency.
This isn’t the only example of Democratic self-sabotage that’s been floated in Washington recently. Earlier this month, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said they would adopt “pay-go” rules if they retake the House this fall. Short for “pay-as-you go,” the rules would require House lawmakers to offset spending increases with other spending cuts or higher taxes. Pay-go is meant to enforce fiscal discipline in Congress, though it mainly works to constrain Democratic-supported social programs.
Indeed, what makes pay-go so bizarre is that Democrats seem only to impose it on themselves when in power. Even Republicans who bill themselves as champions of fiscal restraint simply ignore it to pass their policy priorities: The GOP-led Congress approved a pay-go waiver last year before passing a massive $1.5 trillion tax-cut bill. Abiding by the rule would make it harder for Democrats to push for Medicare for All or other ambitious policies without dealing a severe blow to other vital programs.
Some Democrats have also suggested they would restore procedural mechanisms that would allow Republicans to block judicial nominees. In May 2017, Massachusetts Senator Ed Merkey said that he would support re-instituting the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees after the Republicans killed the rule to confirm Neil Gorsuch. Some other senators seem receptive to restoring blue slips, an arcane Senate tradition for blocking certain presidential nominations, which Republicans have disregarded under Trump.
The practice’s precise contours has varied over the years, but it generally works like this: Senators receive blue slips of paper with the name of presidential nominees for certain positions in their home state. If the senator approves, they return it to the relevant committee and the nomination advances. If they don’t return the slip, the nomination stalls.
The blue-slip tradition historically gave senators some measure of individual control over nominees for federal posts in their home states. But it also has a more bare-knuckled past. In the 1950s and 1960s, some Southern senators used the slips to block judicial nominees who would be favorable to desegregation. More recently, Republican senators used blue slips to hold up many of the Obama administration’s judicial nominees when Democrats controlled the Senate.
When Trump took office, Republicans then quickly set about filling as many of those vacancies as possible. Last November, Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, began allowing nominations for the federal circuit courts of appeal to advance even if blue slips weren’t returned. Overall, Republicans have approved Trump’s federal appellate judges at a faster rate than any president since Ronald Reagan. Since the Supreme Court only takes up a handful of the petitions it receives each term, these lower-court judges are often the final arbiters for thousands of federal cases every year.
Now that Republicans have largely discarded the blue-slip tradition for federal appellate judges, there’s no reason why Democrats should abide by it. Nonetheless, some leading Senate Democrats have continued to speak favorably about the practice. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, a former Judiciary Committee chair who abided by the practice during Obama’s presidency, gave a laudatory speech about blue slips on the Senate floor earlier this year, as did Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
“The blue-slip tradition has always been obeyed, we didn’t change that,” Schumer said on the Senate floor in May. “We could have. We could have stuffed through our nominees with no Republican input, but we didn’t.”
The placid approach is striking when compared to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has wielded his office like a sledgehammer for partisan gain. McConnell blocked the Senate from even considering Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to fill a Supreme Court vacancy in 2016, all but handing the seat to Trump. He also single-handedly halted a bipartisan effort to shield special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired by Trump. Paul Ryan, the outgoing House speaker, also carries significant influence over his chamber’s legislative process, though the hard-right House Freedom Caucus has often limited his practical ability to pass legislation.
The solution to such legislative extremism isn’t for the other major party to become even more accommodating; killing one’s opponents with kindness doesn’t work on Capitol Hill. If Democrats win the House this fall, they’ll have many urgent issues to address—starting with the question of whether to impeach the president. If Democrats win the Senate, they’ll have Trump’s conservative judicial overhaul to contend with. Their voters will expect this of them. But if Democrats aren’t willing to exercise political power to advance their agenda, why should voters give it to them?