Do we have any potent checks on Trump, after voters overwhelmingly supported Democratic control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the biggest wave election in years? Yes, definitely, but none of the formal or legal checks on a president are immediate. Still, one formidable constraint—and a curb on the power of Trump’s Republican enablers—has already begun.
1) The first check on Trump is the power of the House to set an agenda. The House can set a bold and inspiring vision for our future that will actually help American families—help rebuild our communities that have been looted by Republican policies and reverse the dual trends of stagnating wages and vanishing benefits.
It’s a vision that shows how we can create more beautiful and secure cities by public funding for a 21st-century public infrastructure; one that helps mitigate the harmful climate change underway and also demonstrates the potential for economic growth that will result from focused conversion toward affordable large-scale and small-scale renewable energy.
And it’s a vision that would provide real incentives for families in rural America and our cities to pursue craft businesses or other small businesses that showcase American skills, imagination, and traditions. It includes a budget that ensures the protection or expansion of truly affordable pre-existing condition coverage and guarantees American workers a living wage and paid sick leave for work that enriches corporations.
This vision should offer a tax plan that makes sure that corporations, CEOs, and hedge funders—billionaires like Robert Mercer and Charles Koch—go back to paying their fair share; that scraps the cap on contributions to Social Security and locks in the indexes that tie these vital benefits with inflation. And it should include a 21st-century judiciary filled with demonstrably fair judges, revitalized public schools, and beautified public parklands.
Setting out and defending such an agenda entails more than a press conference or a couple of rounds on the Sunday morning talk shows. It will require meeting fire with fire to counter Trump’s self-serving and deceitful tweets with evidence of what real leadership looks like—and not just in Congress or on television, but in local town halls, virtual town halls, and more.
Progressives have finally earned back one of the bully pulpits. We need to use it to counter the bully in the White House with the voices and faces of an energized, progressive party that is wonderfully diverse, like America, and represents leadership that is more concerned about our opportunities and future than the self-absorbed president and his apologists are.
Proponents of this vision need to enlist Americans in a civil dialogue about how we can do better. By coming together we can protect our democracy from assaults on our right to vote and defend it against the avalanche of unregulated money (and foreign influence) in our elections.
Advancing such a vision is part of the mandate the new Democratic Congress received from the midterm elections.
That’s the first check, and it must be deployed continuously or the other, more structural checks will fail or continue to fail because, ultimately, they depend on the support of the public.
2) The next check is the power of the purse. Under our Constitution, federal budgets must pass the House. Congress needs to leverage this power to approve budgets, either to secure key components of the Democratic vision or to expose who is obstructing them, and why.
Right now, the lame-duck Congress is in a showdown over the “wall” that Trump first claimed Mexico would pay for, then demanded that Americans pay for, and then asserted—absurdly—would pay for itself. But the budget the administration will propose in early 2019 will be the first opportunity for the new Congress to use its powers to unmask the irresponsible and destructive economic impact of Trumpism.
Although federal budgeting has many arcane or hard-to-understand components, congressional Democrats can anticipate the most destructive aspects and be prepared to expose them.
The Democratic response needs to go beyond mere rebuttal of Trump’s State of the Union address, to include a full-court press in subsequent weeks, to (a) underscore how the president’s approach fails to address the real problems our communities are grappling with and (b) demonstrate how the adoption of a truly progressive vision would make a positive difference in people’s lives.
Beyond that early opportunity is the risk that Trump will likely threaten to shut down the government because he does not really care much about what our government does or whom such shutdowns hurt. We must anticipate this possibility by preparing the public, to ensure that everyone knows how a shutdown hurts us all—how it hurts our economy, hurts millions of our neighbors who lose pay, and hurts millions of Americans who rely on the services our government provides.
Any elected politician who goes along with Trumpian tantrums must be shown, through public action, that they will pay a political price for aiding his irresponsible agenda.
Throughout the coming congressional session, there will be many opportunities to show the contrasts between the Trump approach and how progressive policies work for all.
Those opportunities include, formally, the “appropriations” process that establishes how an agency may use funds to execute our laws and the “authorization” process that creates or changes an agency’s activities. For hearings on appropriations or authorization, a more progressive House can insist on featuring the lived experiences of ordinary Americans whose lives are affected (or have been harmed) by the policies at the agency under review.
Administration officials should be closely questioned about the impact of their decisions on everyday people; about the effects of Trump administration cutbacks on programs, changes to ethics rules, gutting of environmental protections, and weakening of inspectors general. Hearings with current and former IGs are also important to help illuminate the breadth and depth of corruption by Trump officials who have distorted agency action and undermined programs designed to address public needs.
Congress can also seek credible reports from the Government Accountability Office, the Office of Management and Budget, and other governmental bodies to help the American people better understand how the administration’s erratic policies or activities have harmed them.
3) The third check is the power of investigation. The House has the power to investigate officials charged with executing the mandates of our Constitution, implementing laws passed by Congress or the regulations approved after public comment, and administering government policy and programs in the interest of the public.
Analyzing the deliberate distortion of the public record on the net neutrality debate through the use of bots (web-based robots) is just one of many examples of the type of meaningful investigation the House can and should pursue. There is wide support in the public for protecting our internet from the kind of corporate hegemony that Ajit Pai, chair of the Federal Communications Commission, has spearheaded.
The purpose of any investigation is not revenge or payback. Nor is it partisan subservience, along the lines of the outrageous interventions of Devin Nunes, the soon-to-be-former chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who recklessly distorted and suppressed key intelligence findings in order to support the political interests of his patron in the White House.
The purpose of congressional investigations is to protect the rights of the people of this country, to uphold the rule of law, and to ensure that the laws passed by Congress are faithfully executed—as demanded by the oath all federal officers take.
As part of its oversight and investigation powers, Congress can issue subpoenas if requests for relevant documents or testimony are blocked, as they surely will be. It is obviously important for Congress to begin the process of requesting key information early, since the administration is likely to slow-walk responses or ignore legal and historical precedents for such cooperation. As government investigations specialist Jack Blum argued in the November issue of The Washington Spectator, the House needs to finish the time-consuming process of hiring key staff and funding the investigations immediately, to be positioned to litigate any subpoenas with which the administration refuses to comply.
There are also numerous former Trump administration officials who can be called to testify, along with representatives of the corporations they used their public offices to aid. One fertile example is the former EPA administrator and ethically compromised grifter Scott Pruitt.
Of course, the elephant in the room is the president. Key incoming chairmen of House committees have begun publicly discussing the importance of holding Trump accountable for the revelations that the criminal investigation led by Robert Mueller is bringing forward—along with protecting that investigation to the extent possible, given the continuing potential for mischief in the Senate under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
This is not about relitigating the 2016 election. It is critical for our democracy that we understand how a hostile foreign power distorted an American presidential election, and what the president and his men knew, and when they knew it. Even going by our limited knowledge from the submissions to the federal district courts that are part of the ongoing criminal investigation, congressional inquiry is warranted.
I believe our elected representatives have a solemn duty to investigate the apparent assault on the integrity of our elections, as well as any other potential criminal activity or legal violations. It is central to the concept of a democracy that no one is above the law, not even the president.
Nor is a Supreme Court justice above the law. I believe Brett Kavanaugh must be held to account for lying to Congress in 2004, 2006, and 2018. It is essential to the very notion of the rule of law that a person cannot and should not serve as a judge if he or she has committed perjury.
And because tens of thousands of public records in the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings were improperly withheld from the public, despite proper and well-precedented requests by Democratic senators, I believe the House needs to investigate those materials further. The House should examine every communication from former Republican Senate staffer Manuel Miranda to Brett Kavanaugh to make sure the public understands how Kavanaugh misled Congress and the American people about documents that were stolen from Congress itself.
I and many American women and men believe that Kavanaugh also lied in his testimony denying Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s compelling first-person account of how he assaulted her. Everyone knows the GOP refused to get testimony from all of the witnesses who have relevant information about his lies about his past and more. There is ample basis for a new inquiry by the House into Justice Kavanaugh’s perjury. The integrity and credibility of our judicial system is at issue.
4) Another check on presidential overstepping is the power of impeachment. The House has the authority to pass a bill of impeachment, and the Senate is entrusted with the power to conduct a trial.
The GOP controls the Senate only narrowly, and conventional wisdom tells us that the partisans in that body will never stand up to Trump, no matter what he does or has done. Still, for precedent one need only recall the principled votes of Republicans who supported the impeachment of Richard Nixon, and it is instructive that more than 40 former members have recently joined across party lines to urge the Senate to defend the rule of law in this “dangerous” period, now that filings indicate Trump is a co-conspirator in acknowledged crimes.
The United States House of Representatives has a moral and constitutional duty to investigate based on the evidence already in the public domain, regardless of whether anyone in the Senate majority has the character to put our country ahead of political self-interest.
If the Senate fails to take action despite compelling evidence, then it will be up to the American voters to hold their senators and representatives to account for failing to defend our Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. This roster will soon almost certainly feature a sitting president who, in pursuit of personal gain, was compromised by a foreign power, conspired to violate election laws, lied under oath, violated restrictions on the use of nonprofit funds for political purposes, violated constitutional stipulations against self-enrichment, and obstructed justice by interfering with efforts to hold him accountable while in office.
Lisa Graves is the co-director of Documented. She previously served as deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Justice.