A Legislative Agenda for House Democrats

Come January, Democrats will control the House of Representatives. Now what?

The obvious answer, of course, is investigate. There is no lack of stuff that needs looking into, beginning with the ways that Trump and his family have used his presidency to make money and continuing through a variety of abuses in the cabinet. Congressional hearings on climate change or on the bungled federal response to Hurricane Maria could bring important facts to the public’s attention. And I think it would be great if the public became aware of all the places American troops are stationed and the low-level conflicts they’re involved in. (When four soldiers died in Niger last year, we shouldn’t have all been scratching our heads about what they’d been doing there.) Unlike the Republican Congress under Obama, Democrats won’t need to manufacture conspiracy theories in order to keep their investigators and subcommittees busy.

But what about legislation? Obviously, the new Democratic House can’t make new laws on its own, but that shouldn’t stop it from passing bills that put an agenda in front of the public. The Republican House did this during the Obama years: It couldn’t repeal ObamaCare by itself, but it passed a series of ObamaCare-repeal bills to put itself on record, and to get repealing ObamaCare into the public debate.

The question is: What kind of agenda? One school of thought says to go big: Medicare for all, $15 minimum wage, and maybe a basic income guarantee. But I wouldn’t start there, for two reasons. First, Republicans would easily unite against those proposals, and enough red-state Democrats might blanch that they wouldn’t pass. I want to hear news reports about Democrats trying to do something in the public interest and Republicans blocking them, not about Democrats arguing with each other over how radical to be. And second, the public still needs to be convinced on those programs. (I know, there are polls saying people like Medicare for All at the slogan level. But an actual bill would have to raise the money to pay for it, and I’m not convinced its popularity would hold once it was coupled with tax increases.)

Instead of trying to sell the public on a progressive agenda, I would suggest gaining the public’s trust by passing bills the public already supports, ones Speaker Ryan and the Republican committee chairs have been blocking. Let’s not start by trying to convince the public to get on our side; let’s start by showing the public we’re on their side. If we do that — particularly if we propose things Trump or congressional Republicans have already paid lip service to — Republican senators will constantly be forced to explain why they aren’t getting on board.

So far that may sound too timid. But it actually leaves room for a fairly broad agenda.

A voting rights bill. As I’ll describe more fully in the next post, the Georgia governor’s election was a sad commentary on the state of American democracy. If Stacey Abrams does indeed lose, as seems likely at this point, there is a very good case that the governorship was stolen by Secretary of State Kemp, who had oversight over his own election and used it to his advantage.

Living in a mostly white, largely professional-class suburb of Boston, I was able to vote in ten minutes. My door-to-door time, including driving to and from the polling place, was about half an hour. But if you are poor or live in a neighborhood that is mostly non-white — especially if you find yourself in a state governed by Republicans — you probably had a very different experience.

Even Americans with partisan leanings usually retain a sense of fair play. (Republican officials like Brian Kemp don’t, but that’s a different issue.) It would be hard to explain opposition to a bill that put limits on voter purges, enforced standards about the number and distribution of polling places, and penalized states where people had to wait hours to vote. The Supreme Court threw out the part of the Voting Rights Act that forced historically racist states to pre-clear election-law changes with the Justice Department. But Chief Justice Roberts’ objections don’t apply if that penalty arises from current rather than historical behavior.

A campaign finance bill. Given how unlikely it is that the Senate would pass anything that limited the political power of the rich, you can argue that it’s silly to worry too much about how the Supreme Court would react to a campaign finance bill. Even so, the bill would have more credibility with the public if it took recent Court decisions into account. If it were obviously doomed in the courts, Mitch McConnell could label the whole effort “political theater” and feel justified in ignoring it.

Two provisions stand out as feasible: first, the DISCLOSE Act, a sunshine bill that would force PACs to reveal the source of their funds and corporations to disclose their political spending, ending the whole “dark money” phenomenon. The Supreme Court already anticipated this in the Citizens United decision. Justice Kennedy wrote:

With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are “in the pocket” of so-called moneyed interests. The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.

Republicans in Congress, though, have blocked such bills in the past.

Second, a tax break to encourage small donations and discourage candidates from accepting big ones. Larry Lessig has proposed

a voucher system, where taxpayers would get a $50 tax refund and use it to donate to congressional candidates who agreed to opt in to the program: If they accepted the vouchers, the only other funds they could take would be individual contributions of $100 or less.

Because Lessig’s plan doesn’t stop rich individuals from donating, it should pass muster even among the money-is-speech justices. Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes has proposed the Government By the People Act to implement a small-donor matching system.

The DREAM Act. A broad majority of the public sympathizes with undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children, grew up here, and know no other country. President Obama exempted them from deportation and allowed them work permits in his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order, but Trump reversed that order in September, 2017. Courts have temporarily prevented the administration from ending DACA, but its ultimate fate depends on Congress.

The possible deportation of the DREAMers has been a political football ever since. Trump has essentially been holding them hostage, offering them legal status (usually without a path to citizenship) in exchange for Democrats giving in on the rest of his immigration agenda. Because Democrats have refused to pay this ransom, Trump blames them for whatever happens, as extortionists typically do. (“Nice family you got there. It’d be a shame if anything happened to it.”)

Passing a version of the DREAM Act (which has been kicking around since 2001 and was passed by the House in 2010) would lay things out clearly: Democrats want to do right by the Dreamers and Republicans don’t.

A government ethics bill. The most popular promise Trump has reneged on is to “drain the Swamp”. Quite the opposite, the Trump administration is the most overtly corrupt since … well, maybe the Grant administration. (Though President Grant himself seems to have been relatively honest and died almost penniless. He wrote his memoirs while dying of cancer in hopes of leaving his family enough to live on.)

Back in September, House Democratic #2 Steny Hoyer suggested what might be in such a bill:

To better police the ethics of elected officials, Hoyer said, Congress should require the president and vice president to make public their most five recent tax returns, ban House members from serving on corporate boards and require House members to link to their personal financial disclosure statements on their House websites. Hoyer also called for giving subpoena power to the Office of Government Ethics, which polices executive branch personnel.

I think it’s also important to slow down the “revolving door” between government and regulated industries. Formulating exact rules here is tricky, because people who leave either Congress or some executive-branch office need to be able to continue their careers somehow. But it’s unseemly for an individual to have power over an industry and then take a high-paying job inside it. (Both sides do this. When Eric Holder stopped being Obama’s attorney general, he went back to his previous law firm, which represents “many of the large banks Holder declined to prosecute for their alleged role in the financial crisis”.) Even when everyone involved has good intentions, the appearance of corruption undermines public confidence in government.

The Chris Collins case shows how low the bar currently is. Rep. Collins, a New York Republican who was re-elected Tuesday while under indictment, became the largest investor in Innate Immunotherapies, a company whose activities fell within the scope of a committee he served on, the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health. While continuing to serve on that subcommittee, he joined the company’s board of directors, and encouraged members of his family and other congressmen to buy its stock. All that was legal. He didn’t get into trouble until he used the inside information he got as a board member to warn his relatives to sell before certain bad news became public.

A health care bill. Health care was the main issue Democrats ran on. To a large extent, they pledged just to prevent bad things from happening: They’d block Republicans from cutting Medicare and Medicaid, and from further sabotaging ObamaCare.

But if that’s all they do, the public will have a right to feel disappointed. They should also do at least two positive things: pass a bill that would allow Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, and lower health insurance premiums for millions of Americans by shoring up ObamaCare.

Trump campaigned on the drug-price-negotiation issue, and before taking office he accused pharmaceutical companies of “getting away with murder“. But while it would be false to say he had done nothing on this issue, his limited steps in this direction (which haven’t taken effect yet) mainly just mean that the companies will get away with fewer murders.

That’s not entirely his fault. When the Bush administration added prescription drug coverage to Medicare, the bill included a provision preventing the government from negotiating drug prices. Everything the current administration has done has to fit within that law. But Trump never pushed the Republican Congress to change that law, and it hasn’t.

If Democrats did repeal that provision, it would put both Trump and many Senate Republicans on the spot: You said you were for this, and here it is. Will you support it?

There’s also broad public agreement that ObamaCare subsidies aren’t big enough and taper off too quickly. For people just above the income cut-off for subsidies, the policies are still pretty expensive. Trump’s solution to this problem has been to re-introduce junk insurance: short-term policies aimed at healthy people. In the long run, these plans create more problems than they solve: If people on temporary insurance do turn up expensive long-term health problems, they’ll quickly find themselves in trouble. And draining healthy people out of the ObamaCare system raises premiums for those who have to stay.

But rejecting Trump’s solution doesn’t mean that Democrats should ignore the problem that makes many lower-middle-class people like the junk-insurance option. A Democratic health care bill should expand the ObamaCare subsidies to put the “affordable” back in the Affordable Care Act.

Where should the money come from? How about helping Trump implement another one of the campaign promises he seems to have forgotten: cutting tax loopholes that only the very rich can take advantage of. The poster child of plutocratic tax breaks is the carried interest loophole, which allows hedge fund managers to treat ordinary income like capital gains. Trump campaigned against it, but his big tax bill did nothing to change it.

That’s a pattern. The tax code is more riddled than ever with breaks for the very wealthy. Democrats should target a bunch of them and say: “This is how we can afford to lower health insurance premiums.”

A gun control bill. A fairly short and simple bill could collect proposals that are already popular with the public and have been implemented already in some states: universal background checks, an assault weapon ban, and a ban on high-capacity magazines.

LGBTQ rights. Nancy Pelosi has already promised a high priority to the Equality Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected characteristics in existing federal civil rights legislation. The Religious Right is already huffing and puffing about this, but I don’t think they represent a majority of the public.

An infrastructure bill. Another unfulfilled Trump campaign promise was a trillion-dollar plan to create jobs by rebuilding the nation’s public infrastructure, which everyone agrees could use the upgrade. After considerable delay, what he finally proposed was largely smoke and mirrors: a “framework” whose details were never filled in. He crowed that it would lead to $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending, but it contained only $200 billion in federal money, spread over ten years; the rest was supposed to come from state/local governments and the private sector.

There were two immediate problems:

Democrats were skeptical of what the public/private partnerships might give away: Do we really want our public infrastructure winding up in the hands of private corporations? (Picture the interstate highway system working like cable TV.) The framework’s proposal to “streamline” and “shorten” the permitting process by removing “regulatory barriers” might simply be a way to gut federal environmental protections.

In short, the idea that there’s a deal to be made here seems naive. Yes, Trump and the Democrats both want new infrastructure, but as soon as you add any details at all, there’s not much overlap in their visions.

So House Democrats should act as if Trump’s framework never existed, and should propose a plan of direct federal spending on infrastructure. Where should the money come from? If the Senate has already shelved the ObamaCare plan mentioned above, Democrats could re-use the plutocratic tax breaks I talked about then.

But there is a bolder plan that also makes sense (even if it does violate some of the principles I discussed at the top): tie infrastructure spending to a carbon tax.


In short, while bolder initiatives are always possible, there is low-hanging fruit that can be picked first. The stump speeches of conservative politicians like Sarah Palin often invoke the phrase “common sense solutions”. Passing the proposals I’ve listed, I think, would do a lot to take that phrase back.

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  • nicknielsensc  On November 12, 2018 at 5:41 pm

    Best fixes for the U.S. tax issues are to eliminate the different classes of income and treat it all the same way, regardless of source, and eliminate the tax advantages that make pass-through businesses the choice for speculators and hucksters.

  • The Serapion Brotherhood  On November 12, 2018 at 9:13 pm

    What worries me about healthcare is this:

    Medicare for all would have to be paid for taxes–hopefully as much as possible would come from the rich, but workers would have to pay something.

    In theory worker’s checks out to go up even with a new tax being withheld, since they would no longer have to have their private health insurance premiums deducted.

    At this point, I honestly expect what might happen is that the workers would never see any of their premium money back. The corporations would just lower their wages by that amount and just keep writing checks of the same size, except smaller for the new tax. The money that used to go to the premiums would be kept as corporate profit.

    Now that I say it, it sounds crazy. But look at the way Chuck Todd and other fugues in the mainstream press are lying about the cost of Medicare for all now, or the way Republican politicians routinely and egregiously lie, claiming that ordinary workers are receiving large savings form the recent tax cut., With the press and politicians serving the companies in my scenario it doesn’t look so unknowable.

    • DMoses  On November 15, 2018 at 2:25 pm

      This would only work if medicare is actually more expensive than private insurance. And its probably not.

      Otherwise you’re implying that companies are leaving money on the table right now, because they could be squeezing their employees harder but they’re not.

  • Tom Stites  On November 13, 2018 at 9:06 am

    Should the House act on the wisdom of your legislative agenda, I can see a wave of ads from Democratic senatorial candidates next time that shows presidential campaign video of Trump calling for various policies the House has voted to enact, with a message: Trump called for it, the House has voted for it, but Trump’s party in the Senate is blocking it — so vote for me so we can carry through on what the people want. The prospect makes me grin.

  • jh  On November 13, 2018 at 5:47 pm

    One more thing – the bills have to have a catchy patriotic title. For example – “Helping our Veterans” – something that I dare republicans to attack – which funds VA hospitals and researches PTSD, guns and marijuana.

    Or “Stopping Mass Shooters” bill which would research how to quickly identify at-risk individuals for intervention.

    Or a pro-2nd amendment bill – Say, provide incentives for minorities to own guns. (Because let’s face it – republicans are only interested in white men (aka mass shooters) having guns.)

    Of course – the democrats should have a “Vote for democracy” bill which helps all people gain the documents they need to vote.

    The key is to use patriotic words in the legislation titles.

    And I really really really, with a cherry on top, want some form of legislation that ranks states in terms of how they contribute to the US financially. It’s time for the makers and the takers to be publicly identified. Hey – the red states have no right to complain. How many times have they said “blue cost liberals” and claimed that we weren’t real Americans? How many times do they imply that they pay taxes and liberals waste them. This should be titled “Tracking government funding to avoid fraud and waste”. Naturally, I’d want to hold the states that suck down federal tax payer dollars to some sort of “jobs requirement” a la the democrat and republican attacks on medicaid and TANF and SNAP recipients.

    Another one would be on the state level. Having several states require that any person who wants to run for any office needs to disclose their tax records. If they don’t want to be on the ballot, don’t release your tax records. But you don’t get listed and you don’t get any votes even from write in ballots because the definition of eligible candidate includes “publicly released tax and financial records”.


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