Meanwhile, the Democrats acquire the power of the subpoena, arguably as impactful as the speaker’s gavel. Since only the majority party can compel testimony or initiate official investigations, Democrats were unable to do their own inquiries of the president, his Cabinet or his businesses and foundation. Now, several new committee chairmen have already signaled their intentions to launch investigations. And the small change in the name of the House’s chief investigatory committee says it all, notes Casey Burgat, governance fellow at R Street, a public policy group promoting open markets.
The Oversight and Government Reform Committee, under a new leadership package, would be renamed the Oversight and Reform Committee.
“They want to be able to investigate everything,” Burgat says, noting the implied expansion of jurisdiction in the name change.
But how much can – and will – the Democrats actually do?
Minority status in the Senate, and a GOP president who offers lots of mixed messages on legislative deals, means it’s not likely the House will be a driver of public policy. It’s possible the newly elected speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, will encounter pushback from new progressives in her party who have less patience with the concession-making that leaders do when negotiating bills.
And while the House freshmen have a more optimistic approach than previous classes of Congress, they may well run into pressure from constituents who don’t like them cavorting legislatively with the other party.
“My read of it is that I think you’re going to see a greater frequency of deals being made. But I’m not sure we’re going to make progress on the really big ones,” says Bruce Bond, co-founder of the Common Ground Committee. Bond sees limited opportunities for agreement on a limited number of measures, such as infrastructure and the “Dreamers,” young people brought into the country illegally as immigrants when they were kids.
But “there’s still a mindset that if you are perceived to be working with the enemy, you are the enemy,” Bond says.
The scene on the Hill as the 115th Congress closed, and the 116th began, foreshadowed both a spirit of cooperation and a readiness to fight. New members wandered about with a giddy, first-day-of-school anticipation, holding their children’s hands as they readied for their first official votes in office. Veteran Democratic members adopted a new-sheriff-in-town demeanor, plotting new policy legislation and talking about aggressive investigations and even Trump’s impeachment.
The first legislative bill Democrats planned to offer is a measure providing public funding of campaigns, requiring the president to disclose his or her tax returns and restoring the Voting Rights Act, among other things. Investigations, Pelosi has said, will be up to the new committee chairpersons while jurisdictions allow for such inquiries.
But Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman of California isn’t waiting, telling The Los Angeles Times he would offer articles of impeachment. The issue has divided Democrats, who don’t want Trump in office but fear rushing to impeachment before special prosecutor Robert Mueller finishes his report will provoke a voter backlash. Pelosi, hours before she faced her vote for speaker, told NBC’s “Today” program that she was not ruling out impeachment and that it was not clear that a sitting president could not be indicted.
“You’re going to see a greater frequency of deals being made. But I’m not sure we’re going to make progress on the really big ones.”
The Senate, where Republicans slightly expanded their majority, had a characteristically more sedate day of transitions, with new senators heading to the ornate Old Senate Chamber for ceremonial swearings-in. There was an undercurrent of added political dynamics to come, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts having announced her plans to seek the Democratic nomination for president and several of her colleagues mulling candidacies as well.
But it is the new House – and especially its freshmen – which is expected to drive much of the changes on the horizon, especially those that can be done with Senate or White House approval.
The chamber that once led the fight to undo Obamacare will now be fighting for its survival in the courts. The old committee to examine global warming will be reconstituted – and renamed, more ominously, the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.
The House now has a record 102 women – including its first two Native American and first two Muslim females. And that’s reflected in a Democratic set of House rules calling for mandatory anti-harassment training for returning and new members and a lifting of the anti-hat rule that would have led Muslim women to remove their headscarves on the floor.
There are now eight LGBT House members, and House leaders’ rules package includes a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The new House is also the second-most educated and the least politically experienced in history, says Burgat, who analyzed the data with his R Street colleague Charles Hunt.
The political inexperience can be a mixed bag, Burgat says. The newer members might not know the ins and outs of legislative procedure, but many bring strong policy backgrounds in education, health care and national security. And while the Republicans’ huge win in 2010 was driven by people who wanted to “burn the place down and rebuild it smaller,” this new class of Democrats is more optimistic and dedicated to the institution of Congress itself, he adds. “There’s a re-thinking of power, in and of itself, and a recognition of Congress as an institution of the people,” Burgat says.