It’s a good thing for Democrats that the “Better Deal” agenda that party leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi unveiled on Monday will not be their only campaign message as they head into the 2018 midterms.
There’s nothing exactly wrong with Democrats’ plan to raise wages, train workers, invest in infrastructure, and break up monopolies that hurt competition. It’s just that the whole rollout, staged in the white, working class town of Berryville, Virginia, had a self-consciously scripted air about it. It’s easy to see why voters at the party’s base want their leaders to show more passion and grit.
That’s why House Democrats’ recent moves to force debates on ethics and accountability issues deserve special notice. In a new package of bills and in a series of aggressive procedural maneuvers, Democrats in the House are sounding themes that have the potential to resonate powerfully across the ideological spectrum. These themes include the message that the system is rigged in favor of moneyed interests, and that ethics abusers must be held to account.
“This sense of frustration with government and elites and insiders now runs broad and deep across the American electorate, and there’s no question it was a factor in Donald trump’s election,” says House Democrat John Sarbanes, of Maryland. “He tapped into this sense of resentment that people have about the current political system, and the undue influence that big money and special interests have.”
Sarbanes chairs a House Democracy Reform Task Force that recently announced a package of bills focused on campaign-finance fixes, tougher ethics and disclosure rules, curbs on gerrymandering, and plans to strengthen the Federal Election Commission. A key element of the “By the People” plan is a proposal to match low-dollar campaign donations with public funds. The package draws a sharp line between Democrats who have spelled out a proactive democracy agenda, says Sarbanes, and Republicans who reject such reforms. Democrat Dick Durbin, of Illinois, has also introduced small-donor legislation in the Senate.
The “Better Deal” agenda unveiled by Schumer and Pelosi this week does gesture to big money and special interest abuses. “Corporate interests, the super wealthy, are allowed to spend unlimited, undisclosed amounts of money on campaigns and lobbying so they can protect their special deals in Washington,” declared Schumer in Berryville. But the plan made no mention of the need to rein in Wall Street banks—long perceived as closely allied with Schumer. The Senate Minority Leader is arguably treating Wall Street with kid gloves, despite the fact that most Americans side with Democrats on Dodd-Frank. And though Democrats are stacking all their chips on the economy, Americans care less about it than they did six months ago, and are more worried than ever about government dysfunction. The number of Americans who think economic troubles are the most important problem facing the country today has actually fallen in recent months, according to Gallup, from 30 percent in January to 21 percent in July.
In the meantime, public concern over an issue Gallup identifies as “Dissatisfaction with government/Poor leadership” is soaring, with 19 percent identifying it as the nation’s biggest problem—ahead of health care (16 percent), “Immigration/Illegal aliens” (7 percent), and “Unifying the country” (also 7 percent.) The phrase “dissatisfaction with government” and “poor leadership” could be read a number of ways, but it spells frustration and anger with Washington elites no matter how you slice it.
House Democrats have set out to tap that anger not only through legislation, but through a series of procedural moves designed to force Republicans to act on the many ethics allegations dogging the Trump administration. The most aggressive of these is a bid to make full use a little-known parliamentary tool known as a resolution of inquiry. Under House rules, if such a resolution is filed in a committee—even by a member of the minority—the full committee must act on the measure within 14 days, or it must move to a vote on the House floor.
“There are any number of things—the president’s failure to divest, the violation of the Emoluments Clause, the Russian intervention in the election, the possible obstruction of justice, the firing of James Comey—all of which richly deserve congressional investigation and elucidation so the public knows what’s going on and so that improper behavior is deterred,” says House Democrat Jerrold Nadler, of New York.
Nadler pioneered the resolution of inquiry tactic in February when, buoyed by 838,000 petition signatures, he forced a GOP vote on his resolution asking the Justice Department to turn over information on Trump’s business conflicts and his contacts with Russia. As expected, Republicans rejected Nadler’s resolution.
This week, House Democrats filed four additional resolutions of inquiry in the House Judiciary, Financial Services, Homeland Security, and Transportation and Infrastructure Committees, all dealing in one way or another with Trump-related ethics matters, including Comey’s firing as FBI head, and the lease on the Trump International Hotel. GOP no votes were inevitable, but the resolutions forced Republicans to go on the record against ethics and accountability, says Nadler.
“When they vote against the resolution of inquiry, they are, in effect, voting for a cover-up,” says Nadler, noting that the House Judiciary panel is the only committee of jurisdiction that is not investigating the widening Russia probe. This is significant because only the House has the power to impeach a president, and it would be the Judiciary Committee’s job to draft impeachment articles should lawmakers ever move in that direction.
Democrats will continue to refine their message in the months ahead, and it remains to be seen whether ethics, accountability, and special interest money ever move closer to the top of their agenda. But party leaders overlook such issues and possible reforms at their peril. “Unless you un-rig the game,” says David Donnelly, president and CEO of the campaign reform group EveryVoice, “you are not going to get the kinds of comprehensive and far-reaching proposals that the Democrats suggested this week.”