September 24, 2019
Impeachment proceedings are officially underway, meaning that the tedious debate over whether or not to open an inquiry is (at least, hypothetically) behind us. Following revelations last week that President Trump has taken Congress’ refusal to impeach as a blank check, it is even becoming plausible that the days of Nancy Pelosi’s ridiculous ongoing opposition to impeachment are numbered. This is not to say that the impeachment fight is over; questions about the substance and style of the inquiry remain. Democrats, however, have crossed a major milestone. With the majority of the caucus no longer tied up by whether to even open an impeachment inquiry, it is time they turn their attention to the other, related oversight they have neglected. Only then will they begin to resemble the opposition party voters thought they were propelling to power last fall.
Rather than honor their brave promises from the 2018 campaign trail, House lawmakers have focused on what voters, supposedly, really want to hear about: kitchen table issues, like healthcare and employment. Thus, as they batted back calls for impeachment, party leaders put their energy towards holding symbolic hearings and passing admirable legislation that is dead-on-arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate. There is nothing inherently wrong with these efforts, but no one should delude themselves that they are meaningful acts of governance or powerful acts of politics.
Ironically, as Democrats have single-mindedly pursued kitchen table issues, they have been blind to the fact that pursuing Trump administration corruption represents the most plausible way to make those bread-and-butter problems rise to the top of the national conversation. A Trump administration official, and in many cases Trump himself, is implicated in attacks on each and every one of your typical kitchen table issues: from education to health care, jobs, taxes, housing, and more. Democrats now have the opportunity to make these corrupt figures answer for their transgressions, and to grab people’s attention while doing it.
For this reason, we argued last week in Washington Monthly that House Democrats should put Trump’s assaults on regular people’s kitchen tables at the center of their impeachment inquiry. Even if they heed this advice, however, there will be aspects of this administration’s corruption that will not fit naturally into the impeachment framework. In order to meaningfully answer voters’ calls for accountability, House Democrats will need to think bigger and open investigations into Trump’s many corrupt associates.
They will also need to treat this task with the urgency and vigor they’ve heretofore lacked entirely. By now, it is clear that neither Trump nor any member of his administration will ever be cooperative, so it is time to dispense with the fantasy that patience and good faith will turn up results. Rather than allowing their requests for information to sit unanswered for weeks or months at a time, lawmakers should seek to enforce their requests quickly by issuing subpoenas and suing to enforce them. In light of this administration’s unprecedented obstructionism, lawmakers should look for other means to ensure compliance as well, including using Congress’ power of the purse to ramp up pressure.
While belated, the House Judiciary committee’s decision to open an impeachment inquiry is welcome. On its own, however, it does not fulfill House Democrats’ promise to bridle this president and his administration. That will require a far broader, more vigorous effort. It is not too late, however, to get started. House Democrats can begin to prove their commitment to their campaign trail ideals by investigating every Trump official who has, through their maliciousness or negligence, put regular people at risk. Pursuing the cases laid out below would be a good (although still insufficient) start.
Department of Labor Reining in Obama-Era Raises After Industry Complains
In the waning days of his presidency, President Obama announced a new rule from the Department of Labor that would require employers to pay overtime at time and a half to any salaried workers making less than $47,476 per year, twice the previous threshold at $23,660 per year. This meant that employers could no longer skirt overtime protections by designating junior to mid-level staffers “managers” and forcing them to work long hours at a pittance of a salary. Many cheered the rule, which would give 4 million workers a raise. Employers, however, winced, and set to work fighting it. They found in Mick Mulvaney a useful ally to advance this agenda. Earlier this year, the management bar privately complained to White House staffers that deregulation was not occurring fast enough at the Department of Labor. Mick Mulvaney quickly sought to allay their concerns by insisting that DOL speed its process. Soon after, it released several rules, including an altered overtime standard. While this new rule raises the overtime threshold from $23,660 per year to $35,308 per year, that new standard will extend overtime privileges to one fourth of the people as the Obama administration’s would have. This is a clear case of corporate insiders getting what they want from government, while leaving millions of regular people out in the cold. Democrats cannot allow such blatant corruption to proceed unscrutinized.
The Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on the rules but failed to call anyone from the administration, instead hearing from a panel of experts on the consequences of this change.
House Democrats should make the Trump Administration try (and fail) to defend this salary cut for working class Americans.
Department of Labor Says Gig Workers are Independent Contractors, Not Employees
As gig work has risen in profile (if not, actually, as a share of workers), many have questioned whether gig workers should indeed be classified as independent contractors. When classified as independent contractors, gig sector employers are not required to pay the minimum wage, social security taxes, or overtime. Nonetheless, the DOL recently weighed in to say that the classification fits and should remain as is.
Secretary Carson Forcing Children onto the Streets
Americans were rightly outraged last year when they learned that the Trump administration was separating migrant children from their families. That particularly horrifying policy (not to mention the botched attempts to reunite those families) helped to bring the extent of this administration’s depravity into sharp focus. While particularly eye-catching, however, that policy is far from the administration’s only assault on immigrant families. For instance, the latest proposal from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), would kick mixed immigration status families out of subsidized housing programs. This would affect 55,000 children who are U.S. citizens or legal residents.
Democrats have pursued this administration for its family separation policy, with numerous committees holding high-profile, attention-grabbing hearings on the abhorrent practice. However, if Democrats are truly committed to fighting this administration’s anti-immigrant bigotry, they will demand answers and build opposition to this policy as well. Aside from being the right thing to do, it would also be a winning political strategy, forcing administration officials to repeatedly defend a policy that forces thousands of children out of their homes.
Trump Politicizes Antitrust Non/Enforcement
President Trump seems to view antitrust enforcement not as a tool to prevent unfair dominance, but as a weapon to wield against his enemies and a favor to trade with his friends. In 2017, the administration sued to stop the merger of AT&T and Time Warner. Many suspect that Trump was motivated in no small part by his hatred of Time Warner-owned CNN. Meanwhile, Trump’s DOJ did not intervene in the merger between T-Mobile and Sprint. It hardly seems a coincidence that Sprint is owned by SoftBank, a Japanese firm with significant backing from the Saudi’s and Trump’s friend Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) in particular. When your cell phone bill inevitably rises in the coming years, you will know who to blame.
Secretary Azar Advocates Imposing Medicaid Work Requirements
Most Americans want to expand access to healthcare but one of the people in charge of health policy, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, is working to do the opposite. In addition to remaining silent on the Trump administration’s decision to accept a Texas judge’s ruling that all of the Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional, and raising no objections to the administration’s attacks on Medicaid funding, Azar has been pushing to impose work requirements on Medicaid benefits across the nation.
Subpoena Azar and make him explain his heartless actions.
Trump (via Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue) Bites Hand that Fed Him
Rural voters were key to Trump’s win in 2016 and yet, since taking office, he has been anything but a friend to these communities. By this time many are aware that farming communities are suffering as a result of Trump’s fondness for tariffs. The may not be aware, however, of this administration’s numerous other assaults on rural communities. Consider, for example, Department of Agriculture Secretary (USDA) Sonny Perdue’s decision to eliminate the position of Undersecretary of Rural Development. By eliminating the Rural Development office’s place in the USDA’s sub-cabinet, Perdue was ensuring that less weight was placed on the office’s programs and priorities. Those programs include subsidies and grants for rural housing, funding for rural infrastructure projects, and much more. While the 2018 Farm Bill specifically required that the Undersecretary be reinstated, it would be wrong to assume that the last two years of damage have been remedied. Lawmakers should do more than just chastise Perdue for eliminating the office, but use their powers to reveal the extent of the damage caused.
Boeing Makes Clear Trump Administration Doesn’t Care about Public Safety
While much of this administration’s corruption has direct bearing on people’s lives and livelihoods, it is rare that the threat is so clear as when the President resisted grounding dangerous planes at the behest of an aircraft manufacturer. Following two crashes of the Boeing 737 Max 8, pressure for the U.S. to follow in the rest of the world’s footsteps and ground the plane was building. President Trump initially resisted, however, after hearing from Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg directly. Eventually, however, mounting opposition made inaction impossible and Trump grounded the planes. While further crisis was averted, the information that has emerged since the Max 8’s grounding has only raised more questions about this administration’s ability and desire to fundamentally protect our lives. Look to senior transportation officials’ backgrounds and this ceases to be particularly surprising. FAA administrator Daniel Elwell is a former airline industry lobbyist. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who received just under $300,000 in the 2018 cycle from the airline industry. Both seem happy to do the bidding of those they are supposed to be regulating, no matter the consequences (which, as the Boeing incident demonstrated, can be very serious).
Democrats cannot wait for the next plane crash to take action. It is clear that cozy relationships with industry pose a serious threat, so Democrats must work to uncover and publicize these unsavory ties. If officials like Chao or Elwell comply with requests (or subpoenas) for information, then lawmakers and the public will be better informed. If not, they will have to struggle to make their obstructionism appear as anything other than a bald attempt to entrench corporate power and impunity within the halls of government.