The New Majority and Historic Interbranch Conflict: New Members May Drag Their Feet

Josh Huder | May 7, 2019

House Democrats and President Trump are on a collision course. Democrats demand the administration and others comply with their subpoenas and document requests on everything from the president’s tax returns and business records to the unredacted Mueller report. So far, President Trump has uniformly refused, an unprecedented move that directly threatens congressional power and authorities. The stakes are incredibly high not just for the president, but for the very concept of separation of powers.

One under-considered aspect of this fight is the effect a new majority has on congressional action. The Democratic base laments their slow pace, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. The newness of the Democrats’ majority creates a hurdle in their efforts to compel administration compliance. It magnifies their electoral insecurity at a time of unprecedented interbranch conflict and, ultimately, it could stymie bold action.

Many recent “insecure” majorities worry about their tenuous hold on the majority, a concern that prompts a variety of electorally-minded activities, like posturing and messaging rather than crafting difficult compromises necessary for policy success. Vulnerable members foment this anxiety. Reelection concerns breed a cautiousness that often manifests in rhetorical support but reticence on real policy/oversight/political fights. For new members the cautiousness is even more magnified. First term members do not enjoy the same degree of incumbent advantage (which is approaching zero anyway), and spend most of their first two years learning their district, fundraising, and performing casework.

If the current Democratic majority were more established, you might expect more ambition from the House. Greater name recognition, local support, and robust campaign chests would create enough of a buffer that even vulnerable members would feel more confident when responding to unprecedented stonewalling. But in a majority with forty-three freshmen Democrats from previously Republican districts, their hesitance in the face of historic political and institutional standoffs is magnified.

The current strategy, which is basically symbolic contempt in the face of stonewalling, is frequently cast as a public opinion fight: creating the appearance of reasonableness lays the groundwork for bolder action when reasoned approaches fail (and they will). But this slow and steady tactic may be aimed just as much at those uncertain freshmen Democrats, who are still finding their footing and likely wary of taking intrepid steps despite their necessity given the unprecedented challenge to congressional authority. Until these new moderates are convinced their constituencies will support bold action, the House won’t take it. And freshmen will require more convincing than the average 4th term member given their unique electoral vulnerability.

If Congress fails to protect its institutional powers, there will be historic consequences for both branches. The question remains: can a freshman class elected in large part to hold the president accountable get comfortable doing that in time? The answer will define this majority and possibly reshape interbranch disputes in American politics. And the clock is ticking.

Josh Huder is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

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