This Too Won’t Pass

Democrats are worried that voters don’t care about their legislative agenda, but voters are right not to.

Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (center) speaks to the media as Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer and other congressional leaders listen on May 22 in Washington.
Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (center) speaks to the media as Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer and other congressional leaders listen on May 22 in Washington. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Democrats, we regret to inform you, are nervous about yet another thing. The Washington Post reports House Dems are “quietly airing concerns” that their investigative clashes with Donald Trump are overshadowing their legislative agenda in the popular imagination. While the new majority has passed legislation to narrow the gender pay gap, enhance background checks for gun purchases, clean up corruption, and provide a path to citizenship for Dreamers, voters’ impressions of the House Democratic majority is that they’ve mostly been tangling with the president.

Democrats learned of this startling development not simply by taking a good look around, but by conducting official focus groups in three battleground states. “The upshot, according to four Democrats familiar with the findings,” the Post writes, “is that the public’s impression of the new House majority is bound up in its battles with Trump, not in its policy agenda.” The results, in turn, have “prompted anxiety about whether the Democratic strategy to hold the House in 2020, by focusing intently on health-care costs and other kitchen-table issues,” will work. For now, House Democratic leaders are redoubling their messaging efforts to let voters know that they are, indeed, passing bills, and it’s Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s fault none of them are going anywhere.

This is something I’ve heard House Democrats complain about endlessly since they’ve taken the majority: Let’s talk about all of the great bills we’ve passed, that the Senate isn’t touching, instead of these distractions. House Republicans said the same thing when they had the majority. The implication is always that there’s some glitch in the system—media inanity, mostly—preventing voters from appreciating the important work legislators are doing on kitchen-table issues, or that the electorate is simply not receiving the relevant information.

But maybe they are receiving it loudly and clearly: House Democrats are passing, essentially along party lines, all sorts of legislation that they designed and wrote to be passed essentially along party lines. These bills have no chance of going anywhere because Republicans, who control the Senate and the White House, have no interest in them. Voters will care about them when there’s a government configuration—specifically, unified Democratic control of the House, Senate, and White House—that might enact them into law. But for now, the important work of the House is that which it can control regardless of Mitch McConnell’s cooperation: investigating the president, who is long past due for it.

When voters elected a Democratic House for the first time in eight years last November, they weren’t expecting any grand legislative breakthroughs between the two parties. A week after the 2018 midterms, Pew conducted a survey showing that while the “public is generally positive about the outcome of last week’s midterm elections … most Americans think that neither Democratic congressional leaders nor Donald Trump will be successful in getting their policies passed into law during the next two years.” Sixty-one percent of voters, including 49 percent of Democratic voters, believed that Democrats would be unsuccessful in getting their programs enacted over the next two years. Asked whether “partisan relations” would get better, worse, or stay the same, just 9 percent said they would get better, while 44 percent said they would worsen and 46 percent said they’d stay the same (i.e., bad).

Voters aren’t dumb: The 90 percent who believed that relations would stay terrible or somehow get even worse were correct, as was the majority that believed Democrats wouldn’t be able to enact their agenda into law. What the House Democratic victory did accomplish, though, was that it ended Republicans’ ability to get any agenda items they wanted, such as a rollback of protections for preexisting conditions, passed into law. Democrats won their chief legislative victory—a blockade of conservatives’ legislative agenda—on the night of the election. Gridlock was the goal.

So if voters aren’t paying attention to the bills that Democrats are passing by themselves in the House, even if they like those bills, then good on them for the efficient intake of information. Why get distracted by legislation that Republicans, who still control most of the government, have no interest in passing? Why not watch the Women’s World Cup or do some yardwork or watch paint dry instead of checking in on what party-line legislation House Democrats passed? If they’re ever going to know, voters already know that House Democrats support things like a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, enhanced gun background checks, and protecting the Affordable Care Act. It will all get aired out to exhaustion during the Democratic presidential primary. But for the purposes of this Congress, these votes are effectively symbolic.

What House Democrats can do with their majority, with or without McConnell’s permission, is investigate the president and his administration: his conduct during the 2016 campaign, his behavior during the Justice Department’s Russia investigation, his financial history, his business conflicts, his family separation policy, and on and on. It is not a flaw in the system that voters know more about Democrats tussling with the administration on these fronts than they do about “show votes” on the House floor. They’re just focusing on the important stuff.