It’s been a busy year for Congress — with the exception of actual legislating, of course. Investigations, public hearings and judicial confirmations have consumed months of committee time and staff resources. And although the public has historically been cynical toward Congress’ job performance, recent polling is uniquely dire: Currently, nearly 70 percent of voters believe Congress is unlikely to address the nation’s most important challenges.
With impeachment looming, voters are right to be worried about Congress’ upcoming legislative prospects. Impeachment politics tends to undermine bipartisan goodwill — the stuff often needed for legislative success. Rather than drafting bills, several House committees are now hard at work fulfilling another important congressional duty of collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses for the ongoing impeachment inquiry. And if the president is impeached, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell has already acknowledged that the chamber will have to hold a time-consuming trial.
The White House itself has also put up a roadblock to legislative progress by hinting that, as long as the impeachment inquiry continues, it has little interest in signing any significant legislation. In short, all signs predict a perfect storm for infinitesimal lawmaking progress until the 2020 election. But impeachment does not have to stall legislative progress. The Clinton impeachment saga offers a helpful comparison.
The Clinton impeachment took place between Oct. 8, 1998, and Feb. 12, 1999. During that four-month period, 148 bills became law, including noteworthy items such as the reauthorization and updating of the Head Start program. Curiously, during the same window of time both the previous year and year after the Clinton impeachment, only 103 bills were signed into law. It appears that at the time, Congress was more productive during impeachment than it was otherwise. Unfortunately, this legislative success seems a relic of a more productive era; the first 10 months of this Congress has seen only 65 bills become law.
The lack of legislative success is no doubt frustrating to both Republican and Democratic voters, who continue to see little more than politics-driven headlines coming out of Washington. With the presidential primary now underway, voters are now looking to the campaign trail for legislative solutions. The catch? Many of the reforms are being offered by candidates who currently serve in the chambers where real change could be made today, and yet legislative progress there has all but ground to a halt. With impeachment and campaign politics both at hand, even some bipartisan proposals, like measures to solve surprise medical billing, are likely to get tossed aside to prevent legislative “wins” for either side of the aisle.
Impeachment is not only likely to stop legislation, it could also cause a dramatic decrease in judicial confirmations. Filling judicial vacancies has been a hallmark of the president’s and Senate Republican’s agenda, but any trial that takes place will require senators and their staffs to devote significant time to trial-related tasks. It will also likely spur more partisan bickering, thereby undermining the interparty cooperation needed to select and advance even low-level district judges. Here again, the past proves instructive: During the entirety of the Clinton impeachment process, the Republican Senate confirmed zero federal judges.
With little success to show leading up the 2020 election, members should be nervous. After all, just over a year from now, the entire House and one-third of the Senate will be on the ballot along with the embattled president. Republican members may be left asking why they were unable to help enact the president’s agenda, and Democrats — who campaigned on checking the president’s worst impulses and passing substantial reform — will be pressed on why they struggled to do either.
For now, impeachment seems to be the only item on Congress’ agenda. But productivity does not cease when inquiries and trials begin. The Constitution allows Congress to do both, and the public expects no less. Although impeachment is favorable among many voters, so too is legislative action. Whether it be immigration reform, improving health care or confirming judges, voters are ready for Congress to work and will not accept impeachment as a ‘this-for-that’ tradeoff.
Image credit: Sherry V Smith