A day after Democrats re-took the majority in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi knew she had a mandate. “We have a constitutional responsibility for oversight,” she told reporters. “This doesn’t mean we go looking for a fight. But it means that if we see a need to go forward, we will.”
Pelosi’s comments were hardly surprising. Democrats had campaigned on holding the president accountable by exercising congressional oversight and investigating the rampant corruption in his administration. Four days after taking back the House, the ever excitable Axios published what it deemed a “hit list,” containing “at least” 85 potential targets, including Trump’s tax returns, his family business, potential obstruction of justice and campaign finance violations, and his handling of issues like immigration and the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Even more tangential concerns—Trump’s treatment of the press, his “Space Force”—were floated as potential subjects for inquiry. The prospect was so enticing it sent Mike Allen into an incoherent tizzy. The Democrats, he told his readers, are “preparing a ‘subpoena cannon’” which was, he helpfully noted, “like an arena T-shirt cannon”—but for subpoenas.
We’re now well over 100 days into the new Democratic majority. But, as Washington Monthly’s Jeff Hauser and Eleanor Eagan reported on Wednesday, “only four committees—Oversight, Judiciary, and Financial Services and Intelligence (the last two jointly)—have authorized so much as a single subpoena” and “most committees have at most held a handful of hearings in which lawmakers directly interrogated Trump officials.” Chairs of powerful committees are allowing Trump officials to stall and, in some cases, flat-out refuse to appear before Congress. Calling himself “the most transparent president and administration in the history of our country by far,” while continuing to not release his tax returns President Trump told reporters on Wednesday that the White House would be “fighting all subpoenas.” Earlier this week, Justice Department official John Gore and former White House Personnel Security Director Carl Kline became the latest Trump officials to decline to testify before House committees—the two refused to appear to answer questions surrounding the upcoming 2020 census and the granting of security clearances, respectively. Contempt charges are possible, but thus far House leadership has done little more than denounce Trump officials for ghosting them.
It’s a shameful abdication of duty at arguably the worst possible time. Leading House Democrats, most notably Pelosi and second-in-command Steny Hoyer, have hand-waved the question of impeachment, citing the presidential elections that are fast approaching. But basic accountability measures—subpoenas, hearings—could aid the Democratic effort to retake the White House and the Senate.
The elected Democrats’ decision to cautiously wield their newfound power, rather than race forward, stands in visceral contrast to the general population’s initial response. The first two years of Trump’s presidency were marked by a number of protests—of the administration’s travel ban, of attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, of Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, and of the GOP’s push for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Seemingly every major action the Trump administration took was met by vocal and visible resistance—sometimes coordinated, sometimes improvised.
That kind of direct action has all but stopped in the wake of the 2018 midterms. It’s possible that the party’s base feels more content now that Nancy Pelosi has regained the gavel and that House Democrats have subpoena power again—even if they’ve not done that much with it. Perhaps it is possible that, with the party’s presidential primary heating up, attention has shifted from the daily high crimes and misdemeanors of the Trump administration to Elizabeth Warren’s white papers, Bernie Sanders’s rallies, and learning how to pronounce “Buttigieg.”
But it’s also possible that House leadership has actively tamped down the pre-midterms energy. Pelosi and other powerful Democrats have cautioned against taking rash action. In their eyes, the blue team has a strong hand heading into the 2020 election, given the general aura of toxicity that has clouded Donald Trump’s presidency from the very beginning. There seems to be concern that oversight and accountability could backfire, squandering the precious advantages the party has accumulated in the lead-up to what will likely be a vicious general election.
They might (might) have a point when it comes to impeachment, a long slog that could get spun into the idea that the Democrats aren’t much interested in governing. But this sense of caution seems to have migrated outward and is now preventing Democrats from doing even some of the most elemental oversight.
One of the Democratic Party’s most effective messages heading into 2020 will be built around the corruption of the Trump administration. Given the plethora of scandals that have dominated—and at times threaten to capsize—the Trump administration, there is more than enough material out there. Investigations into, say, security clearances given to members of the president’s family or the cozy relationship between Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman could be complementary to the ongoing work of Maxine Waters’s Financial Services Committee, which, Hauser and Eagan note, has recently played a role in the resignation of Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan and Bank of America’s decision to raise its starting wage to $20 an hour.
There is a danger that the lack of vigorous oversight will appear to voters as a broader aura of complacency emanating from House leadership. Mnuchin has so far faced no meaningful penalty for failing to show for a January 24 hearing about the government shutdown. Trump’s decision to fight subpoenas of former associates, like former White House Counsel Don McGahn, probably stems from his instinct, likely egged on by his own legal team, to fight everything—but it doesn’t seem to be tempered by the gun-shy House Democratic leadership.
The aura of complacency also increasingly looks like entitlement. Democrats want to protect the advantages they believe they have heading into the general election. That’s understandable, given the horrors a second-term of a Donald Trump presidency would bring. But it may also ultimately be self-defeating. In the midterms, Democrats turned out in record numbers, in part because they wanted to ensure that Trump would finally have a check on his unbridled government. A Democratic majority in Congress isn’t there to protect the party’s political capital heading into a general election—it’s there to show how Democrats will govern if elected. That means exposing corruption and holding people accountable. Four months into the new Democratic majority, however, the party has mostly opted to keep its powder dry, fearful of overplaying its hand, or deploying the political capital a midterm landslide brought them. That’s good news for the president and his administration, who have spent the past week taking an unearned, “exoneration”-themed victory lap and acting, not without reason, like no one will ever really try to hold them accountable again.