Congress in 2019: A vital check on presidential power

A tourist gazes up towards the dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington January 25, 2010.  On Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama will deliver his first State of the Union speech in the House Chamber of the Capitol.     REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque      (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - GM1E61Q0DZO01
Editor's note:

This post is part of the series Congress in 2019.

Congress in 2019 logoA number of Democrats, including many of those newly elected in competitive districts, are wary of making the corruption of President Trump the focus of their party’s activities in the new Congress.  Their campaigns were about health care and good jobs, about countering wealthy special interests and big money in politics. Most thought it best to let Trump’s misbehavior speak for itself and instead concentrate on policies that are responsive to the real-life concerns of their constituents.

However sensible that might have been in the election, the new House majority has a constitutional responsibility, made more salient by the egregious behavior of this president, to protect the pillars of our democracy—from the rule of law and a free press to the honesty, integrity, and competence of those charged with leading our government and administering public programs. It would be shameful for them to shy away from this responsibility.

A new Democratic majority in the House is now in a position to provide what has been sorely missing since Trump’s shocking election: a first branch of government (even though only a single chamber of Congress) with the incentive and tools to counter the illiberal, corrupt, and perverse actions of our president and his entourage.

The immediate imperative is to protect the independence of the Mueller investigation, allowing its orderly completion and its findings made transparent. But the office of special counsel launched as a result of Russian interference in the 2016 election is only part of the effort needed to expose the threats to American democracy posed by this president, his administration, and the Republican Party. Multiple additional legal investigations have been opened by U.S. Attorneys in New York, Virginia, and the District of Columbia and by public officials in a number of city and state governments. Inspectors general and ethics officials are pursuing potential violations of law and rules. A number of civil suits have been filed and are moving through the judicial process. But the record of this unprecedented assault on democratic institutions, values, norms, and practices must be codified, substantiated, and publicized. House Democrats should fully utilize the powers of congressional oversight to build that record, with fairness to the minority party and genuine respect for facts, evidence, and truth. Nothing could do more to discredit their work, and the importance of their role as a co-equal branch, than to follow the Republican model investigating the 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi.

The results of the Mueller and congressional investigations, and the public reactions to them, will determine how the House responds. Impeachment is the ultimate power of Congress to deal with a corrupt president, but it cannot succeed without some buy-in by Republican voters and elected officials. The gravity of the charges and the weight of the evidence will have to be overwhelming to meet the supermajority requirement for conviction by the Republican Senate. Short of that ultimate weapon, House Democrats will be in a position to resist further abuses of power during the 116th Congress and to set a legislative agenda for remedial steps to make them less likely in the future.

That said, congressional Democrats will have ample opportunity to shape a substantive agenda that helps define the values, priorities, and policies they will carry into the 2020 elections. Given sharp partisan differences and divided control of government, it would be disingenuous of them to promise a bountiful legislative harvest over the next two years. More messaging than legislating is inevitable. Happy talk about bipartisan problem solving and civility will do little to rebuff the threats to our democracy or to elect a government worthy of public trust.