Democratic committee leaders are ready to roll out an ambitious legislative wish list if the House majority flips in next month’s midterm elections.
After eight years in the minority, Democrats have big plans, from shoring up ObamaCare and Dodd-Frank financial rules to protecting “Dreamers” and the integrity of elections.
They are also vowing to aggressively probe the actions of the Trump administration — an oversight role Democrats contend was virtually abandoned by Republicans.
“Basically, a lot of the committees have just been rubber stamps for this administration,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee.
Because Democrats have long honored a system of seniority without term limits, the top Democrats on House panels are considered favorites to jump into chairmanships if control of the House changes hands.
The gavel-holders are poised to play an outsize role if the Democrats control the chamber: Given the growing clamor from rank-and-file lawmakers about consolidation of power at the top of the party, Democratic leaders across the board are vowing to lend more authority to the committees in the next Congress.
The Hill spoke with a dozen ranking members and the offices of several others. Here’s what they said about their priorities if they seize the gavels in 2019.
For eight years, Republicans have sought to cut federal funding for a long list of social service programs. That trend would be reversed under Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), a 15-term veteran who’s in line to become the first woman to hold the Appropriations gavel in the panel’s long history.
Lowey hailed the recent passage of a labor-health spending bill, which included a $1 billion increase over 2018 levels to boost initiatives such as medical research, maternity care, home-heating subsidies, nutrition and education programs, and funding to fight the opioid crisis. Anyone wondering what she’d prioritize from atop the committee next year, Lowey said, can find a model in that package.
“You have a whole variety of investments that really lift people up and help working people,” she said. “Look at that Labor/H bill, and I’d like to do as well or even better.”
Lowey said she’d also aim to reinstate a system of passing the various spending bills separately, after years of lumping them together — or resorting to temporary extensions to prevent government shutdowns — largely due to partisan fights over contentious amendments.
“I would hope on all of the 12 bills, that on the House side we could have bipartisan bills and do away with the poison pills and be more constructive,” Lowey said.
“We won’t agree on everything,” she continued, “but hopefully at the end we can have regular order.”
Few committees act with the bipartisan cooperation of Armed Services, where members are generally united on issues surrounding the Pentagon and national security. Still, Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the panel’s senior Democrat, has designs to rein in certain initiatives. The nuclear weapons program, he said, “is pretty much at the top of the list.”
“The nuclear posture review calls for the building of too many nuclear weapons,” he said, singling out short-range weapons for particular criticism.
Smith, in his 11th term, said he would also conduct a more general examination of the defense budget, which topped $700 billion in fiscal 2019. He suggested the growing figure may pose a threat to other nondefense programs, vowing to continue bipartisan efforts to reform the acquisition process in order to cut costs.
“How much money are we realistically going to have for defense versus our other priorities?” he asked.
On the oversight front, Smith said the special forces would be a primary interest, particularly operations in Africa and other hotspots around the globe, where he lamented “a significant increase in civilian casualties.”
“Why are we there? How is that balanced against what’s happening with the intelligence side? Where are we in the world bombing and attacking people?” he said. “I don’t think there’s enough transparency on that.”
Smith said he also hopes to take the administration to task for its approach to the LGT community. Although President Trump had campaigned as a “real friend” of the gay community, he approved a ban on transgender people serving in the military earlier this year.
“We’ve done reasonably well on that with Republicans in Congress,” Smith said of the inclusiveness issue. “It’s just where Trump has been at that’s been the problem.”
The House Budget Committee has typically played a limited (if significant) role on Capitol Hill, charged primarily with setting spending levels for the appropriators to work with. Rep. John Yarmuth (Ky.) wants to change all that.
The Kentucky Democrat, the committee’s ranking member, is eyeing a novel plan to expand the scope of the panel to include overarching assessments of how specific issues, in the broadest terms, impact the federal budget. Such a “reimagining” of the committee’s role, in Yarmuth’s description, would lend the panel new oversight responsibilities designed to guide legislative debates on leading issues like taxes, immigration, health care and climate change.
“Those kind of 30,000-foot analyses are really never done in the Congress,” Yarmuth said.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), of course, already scores specific legislation — a neutral, accepted process that nonetheless has found its critics on both sides of the aisle. Yarmuth wants the committee to conduct its own analyses, taking into consideration elements of the policies that aren’t always reflected in the CBO’s appraisals.
The aim, he said, is to provide the committees overseeing those issues another store of data when forging legislation.
“They give you a version of impact on the budget that’s just related to their score. But as we know, CBO scores based on a model which doesn’t always include all the implications of certain policy changes on the budget,” Yarmuth said.
“So the way I look at it, it’s the way to have that kind of discussion and analysis that then serves as a resource for the committees of jurisdiction when they’re actually moving on a particular policy,” he said.
Energy and Commerce
Few committees oversee a broader swath of issues — or wield more power — than the Energy and Commerce Committee, which presides over policies as diverse as telecommunications, environmental quality and food safety.
But Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the ranking member who was chairman of the health subcommittee during passage of ObamaCare, has a clear focus if he holds the gavel next year: shoring up that landmark health-care law after eight years of persistent Republican attacks.
“The most important thing is stabilizing the Affordable Care Act,” he said last month.
He’ll have his work cut out for him.
While Republicans were unsuccessful in their effort to repeal ObamaCare in full, their tax reform package enacted in December eliminated the mandate for individuals to obtain health insurance. And GOP leaders more recently have set their sights on eliminating prohibitions on insurance companies charging more, or denying coverage altogether, for patients with pre-existing conditions.
Within the health-care realm, Pallone is focused on reducing drug costs. He’s championed legislation to eliminate income caps on eligibility for premium tax credits, while expanding cost-sharing subsidies for lower income patients. He’s also behind a bill to prevent prescription prices in Medicare’s drug benefit program from jumping for high-cost patients, as they’re scheduled to do in 2020.
“The Energy and Commerce Committee will follow through on Democrats’ commitment to lower health care and prescription drug costs for consumers,” he said.
Pallone also has his sights on efforts to bolster the nation’s energy infrastructure, while vowing “vigorous oversight” of the administration for what he calls a “culture of corruption that seriously undermines critical health care, environmental and consumer protections.”
Democrats on the Financial Services Committee have fought for months to use the panel’s subpoena power to access some of Trump’s financial records. That process would likely launch quickly if the gavel falls to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the committee’s ranking member and one of Trump’s sharpest critics.
“If there is information that is going to be unveiled about what has been going on in the White House or Donald Trump or the Treasury, it will come out,” Waters told MSNBC last month.
Trump won’t be alone.
Other Financial Services Democrats are looking forward to the opportunity to haul members of the president’s Cabinet before the panel. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) singled out Ben Carson, Trump’s housing chief, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for particular scrutiny.
“We need to … look at ways where they have undermined the mission of some of the programs, by not providing the budget, by not filling vacancies,” she said.
Democrats are also keen to bolster the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, a landmark Obama-era initiative that’s been under Republican attack for years. They have particular eyes on propping up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), an independent agency that’s headed by Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney, who has fought to eliminate the bureau altogether.
Waters introduced legislation last week to protect the CFPB from administrative rollbacks. She declined to comment on her priorities next year — “It’s premature to talk about what’s going to happen,” she told The Hill — but others were more vocal.
“CFPB has been undermined by Mulvaney,” said Velázquez, “and we have to revisit the budget situation of CFPB and make sure it has the tools … to execute its mission.”
Velázquez, a Puerto Rican, also wants to boost the federal flood insurance program — a pressing issue following a series of devastating hurricanes.
Thompson doesn’t hesitate when asked what he’d like to do with the Homeland Security gavel.
“We’ve not had rigorous oversight, we’ve not had witnesses to present the facts, we’re just left to executive orders,” he said.
Thompson, the panel’s senior Democrat, is vowing a different tack. He wants the committee to conduct deep dives into election security; Trump’s travel ban; the administration’s uneven response to Hurricane Maria; and the screening methods adopted by the Transportation Security Administration.
“The vulnerabilities that we know of … we’ve not completely addressed,” he said.
The Homeland Security panel also plays a key role overseeing the U.S.-Mexico border, which has become a flashpoint in the partisan culture war over illegal immigration, family separations and Trump’s promised wall. Thompson, like most Democrats, favors the employment of new technologies, not an expensive physical barrier, to stem illegal crossings.
“We need to really conduct detailed hearings to see how irrational a wall is in this day and time, given where we are as a country technologically,” he said. “We haven’t addressed it.”
Thompson also wants to redirect law enforcement under the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to focus on criminals — a prioritization of former President Obama that was scrapped by Trump.
“It’s about legislation encouraging them to go after the bad guys first, the MS-13 guys — everybody wants them out of there,” Thompson said. “But we spend a lot of time looking at people who are not nearly as violent.”
As ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) has become the Democratic face of the House probe into Russia’s election meddling — a position that launched his star on the national stage as the panel devolved into a bitter well of partisan bickering.
Despite Republican claims that they’ve reached their verdict, Schiff says the panel’s investigation remains very much open. If he becomes chairman, he’s vowing to launch a new round of hearings, while seeking new documents — and compelling testimony from new witnesses — he says were ignored by the Republicans.
“It is ongoing, and it will continue if we are in the majority with power of subpoena,” Schiff told The Hill last month.
One area in particular that the GOP has neglected, according to Schiff, has been an examination of Russia’s potential financial ties to Trump’s sprawling global business empire.
“There was one issue we were not allowed to look at and the Senate hasn’t been either that concerns me a great deal and that is the issue of whether Russians were laundering money through the Trump Organization and [if] that is the leverage they have over the president,” he said.
“Someone needs to determine whether those allegations are true or they are not. That certainly would be a priority for me,” he said.
Schiff also wants to dive further into the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Russian operatives and the president’s campaign team. He’s wary of claims that Trump didn’t know of the meeting and suspects he may have even called into it.
Those investigations would reignite simmering tensions between the members of the committee. Still, Schiff says his top priority as chairman would be to return a semblance of bipartisan comity to the panel.
Immigration, guns, voting rights, impeachment. Name a hot-button issue and it’s likely to fall under the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee, where Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the ranking member and among the most vocal critics of the president, would find little time for sleep if he wields the gavel.
The issues may vary, but the common theme is this: Nadler, a constitutional lawyer, thinks the administration is consistently abusing its power — with the tacit blessing of a Republican majority that refuses to investigate. That would change quickly under his watch.
“The abuses and ethical lapses we have seen in the Trump administration, in the Trump campaign and in Congress clearly show the need to address the culture of corruption that has developed in the absence of appropriate checks on power,” Nadler said over the weekend, delivering the Democrats’ weekly radio address.
Nadler has also lashed out at the administration for refusing to defend certain ObamaCare insurance protections from outside lawsuits; for separating immigrant families at the southern border; for backing the National Rifle Association in opposition to tougher gun laws; and for defending states that have adopted tougher voting restrictions.
“All of these areas have been completely ignored by a Republican Congress unwilling to do its job for the people,” he said.
Nadler has been fighting for legislation to protect the Department of Justice probe, being led by special counsel Robert Mueller, into potential collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign during the 2016 elections — a bill Democrats would almost certainly push early if they control the House next year.
Nadler will also come under intense pressure from the Democrats’ liberal base to launch the process to impeach the president. Thus far, he has resisted those entreaties, joining leadership in urging a conclusion to the Mueller investigation.
The Democrats’ exasperation with Trump’s approach to the environment is no secret. From the president’s expansion of offshore drilling, to his decision to yank the U.S. from the landmark Paris climate accord, to the shrinking of national monuments to free up mineral reserves, Democrats have accused the administration of coddling the extractive industries at the expense of public health.
If the House flips, Democrats would have one of their most liberal voices pushing back on all fronts. And Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), an eight-term veteran who heads the Progressive Caucus, says his “No. 1” aim will be getting disclosure on a host of decisions emanating from the office of Ryan Zinke, the Interior secretary who Grijalva deems “nonresponsive” to congressional concerns.
“If there’s no change of behavior, willingly, then [we will] have a robust, legal and investigative arm that does what it needs to do in order to get the answers that we need,” Grijalva said. “Whether that is through subpoena, or through cooperation, it has to [happen].”
Zinke, a former House member representing Montana, has been the subject of more than 10 formal investigations — seven of them ongoing — into issues ranging from a land deal involving Halliburton’s chairman to his travel on private jets.
On the legislative front, Grijalva named a short list of issues he’d like to tackle quickly. The common theme, he said, will be a focus on strengthening environmental statutes — including the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act — after eight years of attacks from the committee’s Republican majority.
“I think we have a responsibility to shore them back up,” he said.
Oversight and Government Reform
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) will have the gavel for one of the most powerful House panels — and most problematic to Trump — if Democrats retake the House. And the senior Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee suggests he barely knows where he’ll begin if he gets the chance.
“There’s so much,” Cummings said, trailing off.
The indecision is fleeting, however, as Cummings quickly rattled off a host of issues he’s hoping to examine early next year.
Voting rights is near the top of the list — a response to the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision gutting the Voting Rights Act. Since then, a number of states have adopted tougher voting rules, to the howls of Democrats who consider them discriminatory.
Cummings, in his 11th term, said he’d also delve into the Republican efforts to eliminate pre-existing condition protections under ObamaCare, as well as strategies for lowering the cost of prescription drugs. More broadly, he said he’ll take Trump to task for attacks on the FBI, the media and other institutions — a campaign, Cummings said, that’s “tearing apart the foundations of our democracy.”
“I haven’t figured out exactly how I’m going to do it, but we’re going to definitely look at that,” he said.
As a forecast of what might come, Cummings and Oversight Democrats have submitted more than 50 subpoena requests for administrative documents on topics ranging from Trump’s efforts to dismantle ObamaCare and officials’ use of chartered flights to the president’s travel ban and the use of private email in the White House. Republicans have denied every request.
Cummings is no stranger to the fight. In 2010, he hopped over a more senior member, former Rep. Edolphus Towns (N.Y.), to become the committee’s senior Democrat — a move blessed by the party’s leaders, who wanted a figure with Cummings’s pugnacity to go toe-to-toe with former Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
Transportation and Infrastructure
On the campaign trail, Trump promised an enormous infrastructure package to boost the economy and mend the brittle bones of the nation’s aging roads and bridges. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who has a $500 billion plan in hand, is ready to work with Trump as chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee next year. But that’s just a start.
The 16-term DeFazio, senior Democrat on the panel, is furious that GOP leaders have repeatedly quashed his bill to ensure that billions of dollars in revenues collected for harbor maintenance be spent for that purpose. The proposal passed through the committee this year with bipartisan support, but never reached the floor.
“That’s easy, hopefully,” DeFazio said. “And that would be at the top of the list.”
DeFazio is also eyeing legislation empowering airports to hike certain passenger fees to underwrite construction of new terminals.
“The airline industry goes berserk over that, yet they allowed the Republicans to increase the passenger security fee and divert the money to something other than passenger security, and they didn’t scream about that,” he said. “So I’m not very receptive to their arguments.”
DeFazio is also up in arms about the Trump Organization’s lease with the federal government to operate the Trump International Hotel in Washington. Democrats have long accused the president of profiting illegally from the arrangement, and DeFazio has accused the General Services Administration of ignoring his requests for information.
“They refused to give me documents because I’m a Democrat. … Unprecedented,” he said. “They will be giving me documents.”
DeFazio is eying much broader oversight of the administration but says he hasn’t nailed down all his plans just yet.
“It’s a pretty good start for the first day,” he said. “Second day I’ll think of something else.”
Ways and Means
Last December, as Republicans celebrated the passage of their tax-code overhaul, Democrats roared about the rushed timeline and a general lack of transparency accompanying the process.
Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who’s in line to take the gavel of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, is ready to revisit the issue.
On his short list of priorities, conducting hearings on the tax law — something “they never did,” he charged — rises somewhere near the top.
Democrats aren’t opposed to the tax package on the whole but are eyeing changes that would shift the benefits from corporations and the wealthy to middle-class workers. They also want to reinstall a state and local tax deduction, known as SALT, that was eliminated in the GOP tax law.
Although revisiting the tax debate would confront the White House head on, Neal is also seeking to prioritize issues where he sees Trump as a potential ally. He named three specifically: shoring up retirement savings, protecting multi-employer pension plans and infrastructure.
“We’re gonna fix the [Affordable Care Act], but … clearly, the administration might be able to move to do some infrastructure work with us,” he said. “I think it’s going to be harder to get some work on the ACA.”
Some senior Ways and Means Democrats — notably Rep. Bill Pascrell (N.J.) — are also vowing to examine Trump’s tax returns, which the president has refused to release. As chairman of the Ways and Means panel, Neal can access anyone’s tax returns — including the president’s — and share the findings with the full committee behind closed doors. The panel could then vote to release all, or parts, of the returns to the public.
Olivia Beavers and Jessie Hellmann contributed.