Democrats, as the former—and likely future—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has noted, must be “strategic” in using the power of their new majority in the House of Representatives. With Republicans still controlling the Senate and Donald Trump in the White House, most legislation proposed by the Democrats will be blocked. Therefore, they need to use their oversight authority to investigate corruption and abuses in the executive branch, while at the same time highlighting their fundamental differences with the Republicans and President Trump.
Already, Democrats are boasting about loading up a “subpoena cannon” to go after Trump on a host of issues: his taxes, his emoluments, his payoffs to the women he’s had affairs with, and, of course, the role of Russia in the 2016 election. This is necessary, but simply going after Trump will not be sufficient. There is a bottomless pit of corruption and lawlessness in his administration to investigate and expose. As Robert Weissman, president of the consumer-advocacy group Public Citizen, notes: “Throw a dart at a listing of agencies and wherever it lands, you’ll be certain to hit on a case of egregious conflict of interest.”
But while the media remain focused on Trump, voters—as Democrats found in this fall’s election—are much more concerned about kitchen-table issues. Even many of Trump’s supporters acknowledge the outrageousness of his behavior, but they still mistakenly believe that he’s on their side. Democrats need to challenge this big lie, calling out the predators’ ball that the president has hosted at our expense. Trump has stuffed his administration with corporate lobbyists, ideologues, and special-interest operatives who are rigging the rules in ways that do direct harm to the great majority of Americans.
Democrats need to hold public hearings that expose this predation, detail the harm to Americans across lines of race and region, make the case for bold reforms, and help energize the citizens’ movements that are pushing for change. Among the legion of possibilities, here are a few that deserve special attention.
The War on Workers
Democrats should convene a select committee to examine why our economy does not work for most Americans. Corporate profits are up, CEO pay is soaring, and unemployment is low, but workers’ wages are stagnant—even after a record-long recovery that began under President Obama. This is not only a fundamental failure of our economic system; it’s a threat to our democracy. It is also at the heart of Trump’s greatest con: his promise that “American worker[s] will finally have a president who will protect them and fight for them.” Instead, he has turned his administration’s economic policy over to Goldman Sachs alums and appointed corporate lobbyists and right-wing ideologues to wage a relentless war on workers.
The cumulative results of this war strip billions of dollars from the pockets of working people. The administration refuses to support a hike in the minimum wage, now 35 percent lower in real value than it was in 1968. Trump also canceled a paltry 2.1 percent pay raise for federal employees. He has delayed the Obama regulation that would have extended overtime pay to 4.2 million workers; rolled back his predecessor’s executive orders to curb wage theft; and torpedoed Obama’s initiative to keep financial advisers from cheating workers on their retirement accounts, which costs them an estimated $17 billion per year.
Trump’s anti-union appointees to the National Labor Relations Board have issued a series of decisions that weaken the ability of workers to organize—most recently, the board effectively outlawed union picketing at many job sites. Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, cast the deciding vote in Janus v. AFSCME, which savaged public-employee unions, such as those for police, firefighters, and teachers. And, with Trump’s support, the Senate has repealed the Obama regulation that required government contractors to disclose past labor-law violations and to retain records of workplace injuries for five years.
The federal government spends more than $500 billion a year on contracts with companies that employ about one in five private-sector workers. According to Good Jobs Nation, a coalition of workers, 41 of the top 100 recipients of federal contracts engage in the offshoring of jobs. Those companies received over a third of all federal contract spending. With the stroke of a pen, Trump could issue an executive order giving priority to companies that use federal dollars to “Buy American” rather than offshore jobs—but instead, he’s used that pen to overturn Obama-era regulations to protect workers.
Trump’s labor policies mirror his personal business practices: The Trump Organization is notorious for stiffing contractors and using undocumented workers to lower its construction costs. The president’s Mar-a-Lago resort hires foreign workers at cut-rate wages while claiming, risibly, that it can’t find Americans to fill those jobs. Trump also rails against offshoring, even as he and his daughter set up shop in China to make their brand-name products.
A systematic review of the efforts by former corporate lobbyists who are now in the executive branch, busily rigging the rules against working people, would provide the basis for comprehensive legislation to empower workers and protect their rights; raise the minimum wage; crack down on wage theft; use government procurement contracts to reward companies that treat their employees decently; and begin to allow workers to share in the rewards of the recovery. It would also supercharge movements like the Fight for $15 and the teachers’ strikes, which are already making progress at the state and local levels.
Scientists now warn that we have about a decade to drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels before major destruction becomes unavoidable. After the midterm elections, activists accompanied by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez flooded Pelosi’s office to demand action on climate change. Representative Ro Khanna and other members of Congress, including the newly elected Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, have joined Ocasio-Cortez in calling for a Select Committee on a Green New Deal.
Armed with subpoena power, that committee could expose how Trump and the Republicans have pocketed millions in campaign contributions from the fossil-fuel industry and staffed the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other regulatory bodies with corporate lobbyists who have larded Big Oil and King Coal with billions in government subsidies and easy access to public lands, while weakening environmental and worker protections and suppressing even the mention of global warming throughout the federal government. Andrew Wheeler, Trump’s recent nominee to head the EPA, is a former coal-industry lobbyist dedicated to rolling back the regulations that protect the air we breathe and the water we drink.
Spotlighting this sordid reality could set the stage for comprehensive legislation to end these subsidies and launch a Green New Deal—generating a wave of public investment and innovation in the renewable-energy industries that represent the growth markets of the future. Such hearings would fuel the growing citizens’ movement for action on global warming and also educate the public on the key point that fighting climate change need not inhibit economic growth and the creation of good jobs.
Fleecing a Generation
Student-loan debt continues to rise, hitting a record $1.56 trillion in 2018, even though college enrollment has fallen since 2010. The most outrageous abuses are being committed by for-profit colleges that prey on low-income students, dishonestly promising them employment opportunities if they go into debt to pay the tuition and fees. Trump himself owned the for-profit Trump University, which paid $25 million to settle a suit by the students it had swindled.
Now, under the leadership of Betsy DeVos, a billionaire with ties to companies that own for-profit colleges or make money collecting student-loan debt, Trump’s Education Department has reopened the door to this exploitation. DeVos hired several former officials of for-profit colleges accused of defrauding students; these officials have been directly involved in neutering the Education Department’s investigative unit assigned to police these for-profit scams. And she has recently begun to roll back Obama-era regulations curbing such abuses. Congressional hearings on the student-loan catastrophe could expose the outrage of for-profit colleges and the department’s efforts under DeVos to aid and abet them. This would not only build support for tuition-free college; it would also galvanize a generation of young people who have been unfairly burdened with these debts.
After Wall Street’s own “epidemic of fraud” (to quote the FBI) led to the Great Recession, Congress created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In its first five years, the CFPB returned some $11 billion to consumers from credit-card companies, corporate loan sharks, and other financial predators. Not surprisingly, the CFPB became a leading target of Wall Street, payday lenders, and credit-card companies—and of the Trump administration.
After the CFPB’s original director resigned, Trump appointed his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, to run the agency. Mulvaney, who had received significant contributions from payday lenders in his years as a congressmen, had previously scorned the CFPB as a “sick, sad joke.” After taking over its reins, he immediately set out to gut the agency, slashing its resources, cutting back its investigations, and weakening the unit assigned to investigate student-loan fraud. Mulvaney suspended a rule that would have imposed restrictions on payday lenders, forcing them to document whether their customers had any chance of repaying loans. He also dropped an investigation into at least one company that had donated to his political campaigns in the past, and moved to weaken and delay the implementation of a rule that would have limited penalty fees for overdrafts on prepaid credit cards.
As former North Carolina congressman Brad Miller warns, by the time Mulvaney is finished with the agency, “we’ll be right back to where we were in 2007 and 2008, where it’s open season on consumers. Where anything you sign may have hidden in the tiny little print…provisions that just screw you blind.” If the House Democrats hold hearings on the CFPB’s dismemberment, they could highlight how, under the Trump administration, Wall Street is once again evading even limited efforts to protect American consumers.
Privatization: Lock ’Em Up
Trump’s indefensible detention of immigrant children separated from their parents is only the most offensive part of the drive led by Jeff Sessions, his former attorney general, to lock up more and more people. This is a classic example of how the rules get rigged by lobbyists: After Obama’s Justice Department announced that it would phase out the use of private prisons at the federal level, the stocks of the two leading private-prison companies—CoreCivic and the GEO Group—plummeted. Then, on the campaign trail, Trump praised the use of private prisons and promised to lock up more people. The GEO Group gave $225,000 to a pro-Trump PAC; GEO and CoreCivic also donated more than $700,000 in the 2016 election cycle. When Trump was elected, the stocks of both companies soared. GEO and CoreCivic donated $250,000 apiece to Trump’s inauguration. The GEO Group also hired two more staffers from Sessions as lobbyists and held its annual leadership conference at the president’s cash cow, the Trump National Doral Golf Club in Miami. Obama’s projected phaseout of private prisons was scrapped, and the GEO Group was awarded a contract to build a 1,000-bed detention center in Texas, which will generate revenue of about $44 million a year.
Immigration and criminal-justice reform should be top priorities for Democrats. Hearings that expose the predatory practices of private prisons (which boost profits by cutting back on meals, wages, guards, and physical and mental health care) and the corruption not just of the Trump Organization, but of our whole revolving-door system of lawmakers turned lobbyists and campaign finance, can help drive that agenda. With Trump signaling that he might support bipartisan reforms on sentencing now that Sessions is gone, Democratic hearings on these issues could both propel these changes and help fuel movements like the Dreamers and Black Lives Matter.
America is “open for business,” Trump said earlier this year. This is the administration’s, and the GOP’s, routine way of doing business—and also their true vulnerability. Democrats would be well advised to focus attention and energy on exposing this reality to the American people.