What will happen if Democrats retake the House?
Since this time last year, there has been almost non-stop focus on the Democrats' odds of retaking the House of Representatives this fall. The breathless reporting about the latest generic ballot polling is layered on top of new Cook Political Report ratings every time a Republican seeks the sweet release of retirement over the lasting pain of defeat, and the whole concoction is then topped with the breadcrumbs of each Democratic special election over-performance and put in the oven. What will emerge is still anyone's guess.
But this horse-race thinking has rarely been joined to an analysis of what Democrats might do with their newfound power beyond impeaching the president. Of course, it must be said that there is no guarantee that Democrats will retake the House. One sobering thought: Throughout the past few weeks of White House personnel chaos, massive public protests against gun laws, the Stormy Daniels fiasco, and the invitation of stone cold lunatics into the inner circle of power, the president's approval ratings have gone up slightly. But let's pretend for a moment that this is just slow news cycle doldrums, and that when election time rolls around, Democrats will be as fired up as they have been since the morning after the 2016 election.
What will happen if and when Team Blue is back in control of the House? Will the Trump presidency be over?
Yes and no. Here's what to expect when you're expecting to take control of the House.
1. There will finally be real investigations into Trump's scandals.
Few observers outside of the Fox/Breitbart ideological cul de sac would dispute the fact that the House Intelligence Committee's now-concluded Russia investigation was a partisan sham. From day one, it was clear that Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and his GOP colleagues were intent on protecting the president and his campaign from genuine scrutiny. The unprecedented release of Nunes' preposterous and quickly-debunked "memo" was only the culmination of a long year of subverting the House's oversight of the executive branch. If Democrats take back the House, you can bet that the Russia investigation will be resurrected, most likely under the leadership of Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). But they won't stop there.
President Trump himself has covered himself with the slime of multiple, impeachable scandals that would have ended any other administration in American history. His ongoing operation of a tacky for-profit hotel with his name on it in the nation's capital city as well as his refusal to fully separate himself from his business empire, his slipshod management of classified information, including the appointment of his un-vetted dunce of a son-in-law to a critical national security advisory role, and his grotesque, unprecedented pardon of Arizona immigrant-torturer Joe Arpaio are all subjects worthy of both congressional inquiry and ultimately, articles of impeachment. And there is also the president's long and sordid personal history, including whatever nuggets of venality the Mueller investigation flags in its probe of the Trump organization's financial record, as well as the opportunity for a year of hearings about the allegations of sexual misconduct against the president made by 19 women and counting. Since President Trump is unlikely to sign any legislation addressing Democratic priorities, that means that one of the main things you can expect outcome-wise from two years of Democratic House control is a long series of public inquisitions that might help uncover the truth about the president and his cronies.
Those investigations will serve a purpose beyond partisan self-interest. Some observers have written that despite fears of creeping authoritarianism, America's institutions have mostly held firm under the multi-front assault of Trumpism. But this is true only if you decide not to consider Congress one of those institutions, because the very principle of disinterested bipartisan oversight of the executive branch is very much in jeopardy. The disintegration of bipartisan oversight norms actually predates the rise of President Trump, particularly with the GOP-held House's long series of fruitless inquiries into the tragedy of Benghazi, whose only real discovery was that Hillary Clinton used a private email server as secretary of state, itself a minor problem blown up into the crime of the millennium by credulous reporters. If Democrats do nothing else with their time in the House majority, they should re-establish the principle that if an investigation finds nothing, it should be ended with dignity. That doesn't mean they shouldn't launch a dozen investigations of the president and his associates, but rather that those probes must be fair and led by sober public servants whose only goal is the truth.
2. The Trump domestic legislative agenda would be dead.
From the time that Republicans assumed control of the House in January 2011 to the day that he politely handed control of the world's most powerful office to a doddering, Fox News-mainlining proto-authoritarian, President Obama was not able to realize a single meaningful piece of his domestic policy agenda. For years, Republicans simply stonewalled him, even when he was willing to compromise on long-held conservative policy goals. They refused to help fix flaws in ObamaCare that were hurting real people, ending the tradition of Congress being willing to address pressing problems even when the presidency was in the hands of the other party. GOP elites gambled that making the president look weak and feckless would ultimately lead the public to turn power back to them one piece at a time, and they were proven depressingly correct.
The U.S. constitutional system grants enormous power to anyone in control of a branch of Congress or the presidency, and having Democrats running the House would be no exception. While they can't pass their agenda over the opposition of the Senate and the president, holding Congress will halt President Trump's policy plan in its tracks and give Democrats a better negotiating position for the budget. Any further moves to tinker with the tax code, gut financial regulations, or make America's immigration system more punitive would be dead on arrival unless Democrats make the catastrophic mistake of cooperating with the president on big-ticket legislative items.
And really, the loss of the party's policy agenda probably isn't that big of a deal for the GOP, since that agenda is virtually non-existent anyway. That's why House leadership recently floated the idea of a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, something that not only has no chance of passing either chamber of Congress by the required two-thirds majorities, but is also a laughable repudiation of everything Republicans have done with their power since President Trump took office.
The point is that Republicans know they are basically out of ideas that wouldn't cause a national riot if implemented, and they are mostly content to run out the clock, hoping that the fruits of their gerrymandering labors will protect them from the public's wrath in November. In other words, voters will hardly notice the policy difference between unified Republican control in D.C. and a government divided between Republicans and Democrats.
3. Trump would still be able to transform the courts and start wars.
For Democratic partisans hoping that winning back the House would effectively end the Trump presidency, there is one sticking point — in order to really do that, they need to take the Senate too, and the odds there are considerably longer. Not only would Democrats have to effectively run the table by saving all of their vulnerable incumbents in states like North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, and West Virginia, they would also have to flip at least two Republican-held seats. The two most likely candidates are Arizona, where Sen. Jeff Flake is retiring, and Nevada, where Sen. Dean Heller is the most vulnerable Republican in the country. The political futures market PredictIt pegs Republicans at about 60-40 favorites to retain the Senate, while Democrats are nearly 70-30 favorites to capture the lower chamber.
If Democrats take the House but fail to regain the Senate, they are almost certainly going to have to sit and watch as Republicans continue to remake the courts into a bastion of inflexible originalism. Appointments to all levels of the federal judiciary are for life, and because Republicans basically stopped approving Obama nominees for anything after they took the Senate in 2014, there were a historically large number of openings when the president slouched his way into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. President Trump has the opportunity to do in four years what President Obama did in eight — flip control of one court after another and in so doing, give reactionary Republicans extraordinary control of the public agenda. Because the Supreme Court only hears a handful of the 7,000 or so cases that are appealed to it every year, the district and appellate courts have huge policymaking and agenda-setting power. Mostly their word is the last word. And the House has no role in this process.
Just as President Obama turned his attention to foreign policymaking after his domestic policy agenda was stymied by Republicans, so too will Trump have more time, energy, and inclination to apply his meager talents to the challenging field of international politics. With the unreconstructed militarist John Bolton in the role of national security advisor, the odds of the president blundering into unprovoked wars with North Korea or Iran just increased significantly. Even if someone talks him out of some suicidal act of violence to boost his popularity, the president can still engage in serious mischief. He can blow apart the Iran deal, or pull the U.S. out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (although his authority to set new tariff levels will be limited).
You can also expect big, theatrical initiatives that the president will lack either the legislative or Constitutional authority to pursue on his own, like pulling the United States out of the United Nations or the World Trade Organization or some other far-right foreign policy bete noir like cutting off all aid to the Palestinians. House Dems will be able to stop these moronic initiatives, but that won't stop the president from proposing them. As we have learned, the president generally does not care whether he has the authority to do something — he recently called for Congress to give him line-item veto power, something the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 1998. The point is not to achieve things but to roil the waters of public discourse and create panic and consternation among his adversaries. At that he is quite good.
4. Democrats should do more than obstruct.
One of the worst mistakes of the Republican Party during its long siege of President Barack Obama was the failure of party elites to offer the American people a series of realistic policy alternatives. Instead they transformed themselves into a party bent on little else but the de-legitimization of their political adversaries, and in the process seemingly forgot how to draft coherent legislation. They tried to repeal ObamaCare seemingly a thousand and one times, but then once in office realized with horror both that people had generally come to like the law and worse, that they themselves hadn't spent a single minute over the preceding eight years thinking about what they would put in its place. And so they failed, monumentally.
The spectacle of the Republican Party's total inability to address the issue of health care through legislation, and the damage that fiasco did to Republican morale, turnout, and reputation, should serve as a warning to Democrats. Instead of sending a repeal of the recent tax law through the House once every 10 days, Democrats should gather their leading thinkers and pass a comprehensive alternative legislative agenda that will not only help distinguish them from Republicans for the next election but also serve as an accelerant should the party capture the Senate and the presidency in 2020. The last thing Democrats need is to take total control of D.C. in 2021 and then waste precious time by not knowing what to do with it. They need to gather their stakeholders together now, hammer out legislation that will actually be able to signed into law, and then have those laws ready to roll when President Sanders or Booker or Warren takes office in 2021.
They should also be willing to compromise with the president and Senate Republicans should the opportunity present itself to do something with unquestionable and urgent moral value, like rescuing the DREAMers from deportation, even if the cost is the president's ridiculous border wall. Walls can be torn down — the human damage of mass deportations is forever.
While Democrats need to learn to fight dirtier, they should never completely forsake their willingness to take action that benefits the American people when necessary.