Donald Trump will be held to account in 2019. The prospect that the president and his associates will face serious congressional oversight, and that this scrutiny will provide vital checks and balances for the remainder of his disastrous presidency, is no longer in doubt. The voters settled that question in November, when they swept Trump’s Republican allies out of the House committee chairmanships they had co-opted in the service of a legally and morally indefensible president. Representative Elijah Cummings, who will now take control of the powerful House Oversight Committee, got it exactly right when he said, “Voters made clear they wanted transparency, integrity, honesty, but they wanted something else: accountability.”
Of course, there is good reason to demand that the new Democratic-controlled House send the right policy signals by approving bills to raise wages, expand access to health care and education, and address the existential crises of inequality and climate change—even if the Republican-controlled Senate refuses to go along, and even if Trump threatens to veto those bills. But the most urgent pressure that Americans can bring to bear involves the revitalization of the oversight infrastructure that crumbled during the subservient tenure of former House speaker Paul Ryan. “The saddest part of the last two years was that Ryan completely gave up our responsibility for oversight in the House,” says Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Mark Pocan. “As a separate but coequal branch of government, we saw no responsible actions of oversight for anything that the president or his administration did.
“Now, we’ve got a lot of pent-up work that has to happen,” Pocan continues. “But we can do that at the same time that we’re passing legislation and putting ideas forward. And it’s not just the Judiciary and Intelligence and Oversight and Government Reform committees—the ones that are traditionally seen as the committees that do this—that will be stepping up.” Trump’s ablest critics will now be positioned to issue subpoenas demanding the release of tax returns and other records, to compel key figures to face questioning, and to expose failed policies and egregious conflicts of interest not just in the White House but elsewhere in the executive branch, like the departments of Defense, Labor, and Health and Human Services.
Representative Barbara Lee secured support in the last Congress for rescinding the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which has been used by three successive presidents to justify military adventurism. But Ryan blocked her move, just as he blocked a bipartisan push by Representative Ro Khanna to end US support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal assault on Yemen. Now that Ryan is gone, the House must signal that it will no longer cede authority over decisions concerning war and peace to the White House. Groups that have long sought to rein in US militarism, like Peace Action and the Friends Committee on National Legislation, now have an opening to achieve dramatic policy shifts; Americans who are rightly fearful of this president’s impulsive nature should recognize that this is essential activism on behalf of accountability—and a saner foreign policy.
The ultimate accountability issue involves the question of whether Trump’s presidency should continue. Once ardently dismissive of demands for an impeachment inquiry, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi now says she wants to “wait and see what happens” with the report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Russian interference and broader questions of wrongdoing by the president and his associates. Other House members are clearer in their belief that the damage this administration has done to civil society and to vulnerable communities is already so severe that, in the words of newly elected Representative Rashida Tlaib, “Now is the time to begin impeachment proceedings against President Trump.”
It will fall to House Judiciary Committee chair Jerrold Nadler to strike the appropriate balance. Nadler recognizes that “impeachment is designed as a defense of the republic against a president who would aggrandize power, destroy liberty, destroy democratic institutions, destroy the separations of power. If that happens, if you get real evidence of that, then you have to consider impeachment hearings.” Yet Nadler also recognizes that impeachment is a political act that requires popular support and at least some cooperation from Republicans.
The Mueller report could create momentum for what Pocan calls a robust “bipartisan rebuke” of the president. But he warns that Democrats should not see Mueller’s inquiry as the last word on accountability. The special counsel is “not going to look in some areas,” Pocan points out, arguing that “we need to look at the emoluments clause; we need to look at other abuses by this president and his administration. I think that having robust oversight in those areas, which happen on a parallel timeline with the Mueller investigation, is really the responsible thing that has to happen right now.”
Pocan is correct. This new Congress must be aggressive in answering the demand of voters—and of the US Constitution itself—for the fullest possible renewal of checks and balances.