Democratic leaders are resting on their power to issue and enforce subpoenas — and their cowardice toward oversight has real consequences for voters
Does the Democratic leadership even want to wield power?
It’s hard to tell. Nine months into their House majority, Democratic committee chairs don’t seem to realize they have any powers at all besides the occasional sarcastic clap.
To be clear, Democratic House leaders possess a major power that Republicans can do nothing to block, obstruct, or impede: the power to issue and enforce subpoenas. Through subpoenas, committee chairs could force the Trump administration’s malfeasance into the spotlight. Through subpoenas, Democrats could uncover facts and compel testimony about corporate misconduct important to voters. Through subpoenas, Democratic leaders could answer Trump’s strongman routine with a backbone of their own.
Trump clearly recognizes the danger that subpoenas pose. He braced for a long fight in April by ordering subordinates to never comply with Democratic subpoena activity, thus openly declaring his contempt for the law. Democrats have met that escalation… by doing nothing.
Take a handful of examples from last week. On Tuesday, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski repeatedly refused to answer questions from the House Judiciary Committee. He displayed open loathing toward the very idea of congressional inquiry. To answer this challenge to Congress’ authority, chairman Jerrold Nadler… did nothing.
Acting Intelligence Chief Joseph Maguire refused to testify to the House Intelligence Committee, in a clear violation of whistleblower laws, despite repeated requests from the Democrats. In response, Chairman Adam Schiff has… not yet filed a lawsuit.
On Thursday, the House Education and Labor Committee fulminated to an empty chair because the contractor in charge of the broken Public Service Loan Forgiveness program—which has cultivated corrupt ties with Betsy DeVos’ Education Department—simply declined an invitation to testify. In response, Chairman Bobby Scott seems to plan on… doing nothing.
In each of these cases, subpoenas and enforcement would solve the problems that seem to leave House leaders stumped. The administration won’t hand over whistleblower information? Subpoena it. Is your subpoena being ignored? Fire off a lawsuit to enforce it. Can’t get a straight answer from Trump’s old campaign manager? Hold him in contempt. Can’t get a student loan contractor to talk about its ties to DeVos? Tell the CEO, “We’ll see you in court.”
Make no mistake: Democratic cowardice toward oversight has real, “kitchen-table” consequences for voters. That student loan contractor, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), does everything it can to keep hundreds of thousands of young debtors from making the qualifying payments they need to achieve loan forgiveness. PHEAA aggressively pushes borrowers into forbearance, fails to correct copious errors, and actually penalizes borrowers for paying too much.
This system’s mismanagement conveniently, implausibly seems to always keep young people in debt. It’s exactly the kind of shadiness that subpoenas could help to clarify. It’s about as “kitchen-table” as politics can get: the millennial chained down by student loan debt is a damning cliché in modern life.
Yet Scott hasn’t forced the company’s leadership to the table, nor compelled information from the Education Department, which granted these contracts. This is an Education Department, mind you, that let top staffer Kathleen Smith immunize PHEAA from state-level oversight right before taking a job at the company. Faced with one stumble of resistance, Scott defaults to doing nothing.
Democratic leaders have done a lot of nothing in the last nine months. It seems to have taken the imminent emergence of a primary challenger to scare Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal into actually suing for Trump’s tax returns. Remember when requesting Trump’s tax returns was supposed to be the easiest oversight target of all? They likely won’t be here before the 2020 elections.
At least that lawsuit eventually happened. As far as we’ve gathered, Democrats are only pursuing two cases in retaliation to Trump’s obstruction of their subpoena powers. There’s the case about his tax returns, and the case about White House Counsel Donald McGahn’s testimony. There are two cases where Trump’s lawyers intervened against congressional subpoenas of third parties, but Democrats weren’t subpoenaing the administration in the first place in either case. And that’s it. One would think, considering the courts’ prominence in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s messaging about Trump, that her caucus would take more action against his defiance of their oversight authority.
Democrats act like there’s nothing more they can do to rein in the Trump administration or improve the lives of their constituents, when they’ve barely tapped the powers available to them. They can do a tremendous amount without having to so much as email Mitch McConnell’s office. But they haven’t.
If Pelosi and the party elders want to know why the young progressive base is so angry with them, they should ask themselves: “Why are we so scared of holding a gavel?”
Jeff Hauser is the director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which aims to increase scrutiny on executive branch appointments.
Max Moran is a research assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).