The Coming Democratic Disillusion

Column: Control of the House isn't all it's cracked up to be

Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi / Getty Images
January 4, 2019

On Thursday, after eight years in the minority, Nancy Pelosi returned to power as speaker of the House of Representatives. Her party controls 235 seats to the Republicans' 199. One contest, in North Carolina, has yet to be decided. The Democratic majority is a couple seats larger than the one Pelosi led more than a decade ago. Back then a Republican resided in the White House as well. By the seventh year of his presidency, when some 100 U.S soldiers were killed in Iraq every month and gas on average cost $2.80 per gallon, George W. Bush was about as popular as Donald Trump is today. And in 2007, as we all remember, Pelosi's Democrats set about enacting universal health care and ending the war in Iraq.

Fooled you! Actually, the victories of the 110th Congress were much more modest: a minimum wage increase, lobbying reform, and a ban of incandescent light bulbs. Health care had to wait for a subsequent Congress and a Democratic president. So did withdrawal from Iraq—though retreat didn't work out as planned, and America returned, in much smaller numbers, in 2014. The history of Nancy Pelosi's tenure as speaker is a reminder of the limitations and tenuousness of political victories (and defeats).

I suspect Pelosi is aware of this lesson. I doubt her caucus is. More than a quarter of them are freshmen, many are young, and two are self-avowed democratic socialists. They are inclined to believe history began when Barack Obama entered Mile High Stadium in Denver. It's an impression encouraged by cable news, which spent the run up to Pelosi's investiture celebrating the youth, diversity, and ambition of the House Democratic freshmen. And yet, for all the talk of Alison Spanberger and the "Badass Caucus," of how Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib "aren't going to take no for an answer," of grand plans for a Green New Deal and Medicare for All, there remains the inescapable reality of power. Democrats don't really have it. Indeed, they have even less than the last time Pelosi became speaker.

Yes, they can fire their subpoena cannon at the White House. They can interrogate cabinet officials, subpoena Jared and Ivanka, leak scoops to reporters, maybe force a cabinet official or two to resign, if any are left. When Mueller delivers his findings, they could begin impeachment proceedings. But impeachment, like progressive legislation, won't get far. A decade ago the House could pass bills and hope that Harry Reid would persuade his Democratic Senate majority to support them. All Pelosi had to worry about was President Bush's veto. Now, Pelosi has to deal with Mitch McConnell's Republican Senate even before her policies reach Donald Trump.

She's in the same situation as John Boehner, who became speaker after the Tea Party election in 2010. No one envied Boehner.

The main product of the Tea Party Congress (2011-2013) was frustration. Votes to repeal Obamacare went nowhere. Negotiations over a rise in the debt ceiling produced a fiscal sequester that hardly anyone liked. Through it all, Boehner faced sniping from within his party by newcomers short on experience but long on ideological zeal. It so wore him down that he resigned his post in 2015. His replacement's tenure was even briefer.

Pelosi's not the resigning type. But don't pretend that she will emerge from this trial unscathed. Republican control of the Senate is but the first difference between the 116th and 110th Congresses. The second is within the Democratic Party itself. Not only must Pelosi balance the progressives against members from swing districts. She has to manage her comrades during a rowdy and unpredictable presidential primary. Hillary fighting Obama was nothing compared to the coming rumble. Already Bernie is leaking against Beto, Warren is downing beers on Instagram, and someone reminded the New York Times of accusations of sexual harassment within Bernie's campaign. "We're headed for disaster," frets Michael Tomasky.

Very soon, news from the trail will overtake the goings-on in Congress. House Democrats won't just have trouble changing laws. They also will have difficulty promoting their message. Especially considering the third and greatest difference between 2007 and 2019: the presence of Donald Trump. There's no evidence that Pelosi has any better an idea of how to deal with him than her predecessors. Whenever Trump focuses his attention on reelection, and sets the agenda of cable news coverage by attacking his rivals on Twitter, Pelosi will be less than powerless. She will be irrelevant.

The partial government shutdown is a prelude to an unpredictable two years of conflict, deadlock, breakdown, acrimony, dissatisfaction, and annoyance. At the end, Democrats will be reminded that, thanks to congressional delegation of authority, the House doesn't count for much. What matters is the presidency. Ask the GOP.

Even there, Republicans will tell you, be careful what you wish for.