Analysis

What the Democrats left on the table

The GOP-led 118th Congress is shaping up to be a rocky one. Here's what experts say Democrats could have gotten done last year when they had the chance.

After a bruising — and portentous — speaker's battle in the opening days of the new year, the 118th Congress is finally off and running, with the newly installed Republican House majority already promising a major (and majorly contentious) agenda for the coming years. And while Democrats may have seemed content to sit back and enjoy the GOP's circular firing squad attempts to elect Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as speaker, the truth is that being the minority party means they're now relegated firmly to the passenger's seat when it comes to actually legislating — if Republicans let them in the car at all. 

Compounding the normal frustrations with no longer having control over a chamber of Congress is the fact that, for Democrats, this coming term is an ending of sorts — a line of demarcation after which House Dems can look back with 20/20 hindsight at the missed legislative opportunities from their time in the majority. Here are some of the things the Democrats punted on that could come back to haunt them this term:

The debt ceiling

At some point this coming spring or summer, the United States will almost certainly near the federal debt ceiling — the statutory limit to the amount of money the government can borrow to fulfill its current loans. If the U.S. hits the ceiling without raising the limit, and the government defaults on its loans, America's credit rating plummets and the whole of the financial system reels as a result. With that estimated deadline looming, the conservative House Freedom Caucus has seized upon the ceiling as leverage to wring concessions out of Speaker McCarthy as well as to wield it in upcoming debates over slashing budgets for entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicaid. 

But Democrats, with their formerly absolute congressional majority, had ample time to address this inevitability over the past two years. As the country approached the limit in late 2021, Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell himself told Democrats to pass their massive $3.5 trillion budget bill — which included a debt ceiling hike —themselves, without GOP help. Just over a year later, Democrats again punted on using their narrow majority to unilaterally pass a debt ceiling hike, or suspend the limit altogether, during the lame-duck session ahead of this current legislative term. 

"Leading Republicans in the House and Senate keep saying they want to hold the debt ceiling hostage as leverage to demand cuts to Social Security and Medicare, which the president has rightly ruled out," Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) warned, as some members of the party mulled whether to tackle the limit before the incoming GOP majority could transform the issue into a cudgel against them. Ultimately, House Democrats didn't address the issue, with then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) insisting that some future form of bipartisan debt limit legislation "would be the appropriate way to go."  

Immigration reform

For years, one of the major policy goals for Democrats has been to address the country's flawed, haphazard immigration system and create a comprehensive process for the United States to welcome, and in some cases naturalize, those that come to its borders. Although House Democrats did manage to pass two significant immigration-related bills — The Dream and Promise Act and The Farm Workforce Modernization Act — through their chamber in 2021, both acts died in the Senate, where neither could overcome the threat of a GOP filibuster.

Later, Democratic Reps. Jesús García (Ill.), Lou Correa (Calif.), and Adriano Espaillat (N.Y.) of the Hispanic Caucus coordinated an effort to withhold their votes on the Biden administration's signature "Build Back Better" package unless it included expanded immigration language, before relenting to party moderates who worried the GOP could use the issue as a campaign talking point in the 2022 midterms. What's more, The Hill's Rafael Bernal pointed out at the conclusion of this latest lame duck session, efforts by the party to end the term with a spread of immigration reform bills largely fell flat due to indecision within the party as to which one most deserved to be prioritized before the Senate.

 "I'd do all of them. I'm not going to pick, do all of them," Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who at the time chaired the House Judiciary Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee, told The Hill in November. "They all have their moral imperative, so it's really up to the Senate, we've done our part."

Donald Trump

Out of all the Democrats' congressional efforts, maneuvers, and policy priorities of the past legislative term, perhaps none has been quite as high profile as the marginally bipartisan — but overwhelmingly Democrat-led — effort to address the unique challenges posed by former President Donald Trump and his appetite for a second term in office.

While much of the public's attention was understandably focused on the unprecedented work of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attacks, there were other maneuvers by the Democratic caucus as a whole to prevent Trump from returning to the White House. In the waning days of their House majority, a bloc of 40 congressional Democrats joined Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) in a last-ditch press to prevent Trump's return to the White House, submitting a bill "to provide that Donald J. Trump is ineligible to again hold the office of president of the United States or to hold any office, civil or military, under the United States."

Predictably, that bill, submitted just weeks before Republicans were set to assume control of the House, went nowhere, leaving Democrats in the potentially awkward position of facing a second Trump term having squandered their legislative opportunity to do something about it. While the Biden administration's Justice Department is still pursuing its respective investigations into the former president's conduct, the failure to advance — or, given its late introduction, even seriously consider — the measure to bar Trump from office might ultimately undercut any claims from Democrats that the former president is as unique and potent a threat as they say.

The House itself? 

Beyond the legislative arena itself, the biggest missed opportunity for House Dems over the last term may ultimately be their failure to secure their House majority in the first place. Despite the historic headwinds against the party in power (and aided by a unique suite of circumstances in some key races), Senate Democrats were able to not only maintain their lead but expand upon it in the upper chamber of Congress. Conversely, The Nation's John Nichols argues that House Democrats could have done the same, if only "they fought an offensive campaign instead of a defensive one." 

As the nonpartisan Inside Elections Jacob Rubashkin points out, "The GOP came just 22,378 votes away from failing to net any seats at all. That's the combined raw vote margin of Republicans' nine closest victories."

Accordingly, claims Nichols, "In 2022, the overall turnout fell by 5,835,851 from four years earlier to 107,577,138. That's about 13,400 votes per congressional district nationwide."

"All those votes may not have gone to Democratic candidates, but the numbers confirm that the drop-off from 2018 to 2022 was disproportionately damaging to Democrats," he continues. "While Democrats outperformed in 2022 sufficiently to avoid the worst effects of the historic midterm falloff phenomenon, the party's overall vote total in 2022 was down by roughly 9.1 million from 2018. On the other hand, the Republicans saw their vote total rise by roughly 3.6 million from 2018 to 2022."

Ultimately, then, the decision to shore up their sure things may have blunted the GOP's takeover of the House, but had Democrats been willing to risk their majority to push more competitive races, they may have been able to avoid relegation to the minority entirely. 

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