Democrats have a big opportunity to begin changing this. When they take over the House, they can use the oversight process not just to investigate Trumpian corruption and abuses, but also to try to restore facts, empiricism and good-faith information-gathering to a place in governing processes and debates.
The latest reports indicate that Trump won’t back off his demand for his wall, ensuring that the shutdown fight will drag into next year. Even if a short-term deal is reached to keep the government open, Trump will continue demanding wall money, meaning that will remain a sticking point. So restoring facts and empiricism to the debate over immigration will be particularly pressing.
First and foremost, Democrats must use their majority to restore a reality-based conversation around the topic of how secure the southern border really is. Over the weekend, two senior members of Trump’s orbit — his outgoing chief of staff and his border chief — gave interviews that help illuminate the direction in which Democrats can take this effort.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, White House chief of staff John Kelly refused to answer directly when asked whether there is a border security crisis, only saying: “We have an immigration problem.” This directly undercuts Trump’s nonstop lie that the border is overrun by invading hordes, justifying the wall.
Kelly also asserted that the administration had abandoned the push for a “solid concrete wall” after asking Customs and Border Protection officials “what they needed and where they needed it.” Trump just rage-tweeted that he hasn’t abandoned his concrete wall at all, though he hedged a bit, but what really matters here is that Kelly flatly asserted that border officials have said they don’t need it, again undercutting Trump’s demand.
Democrats have an opening. They should formally request that the Congressional Research Service do a comprehensive report on the current state of border security. This is exactly what the CRS is for. As CRS has explained, it provides lawmakers with detailed empirical information at all stages of the process, including helping them “better understand the existing situation” so they can “assess whether there is a problem requiring a legislative remedy.”
CRS would likely conclude that we’ve already dramatically beefed up border security, and that this has worked, with illegal border crossings now at historically relative lows. A 2016 CRS report hinted at such conclusions, but we need an updated and more comprehensive version.
“This would be quite valuable, because it would come with the imprimatur of the U.S. government,” Josh Chafetz, a law professor at Cornell who wrote a good book on how Congress can use its powers in hidden ways, told me. “Part of the goal here is to give journalists something they can report,” Chafetz noted, and CRS reports are an underappreciated resource for the public as well, given that they are particularly “reader friendly.”
Public theater for the benefit of the public
Democrats can also hold hearings at which Homeland Security officials are directly asked to testify to the state of border security. As it happens, a 2017 Homeland Security report found that the border is more secure than it has ever been, which also undercuts Trump’s wall rage-fantasies. Democrats could bring in the authors of that report and ask them to reiterate and explain this conclusion and justify “why we need to spend X dollars on a wall,” Chafetz noted, which “itself would make good television.”
Democrats can also press border officials directly on whether they want Trump’s wall, now that Kelly has suggested that they do not. On ABC’s “This Week,” Customs and Border Protection commissioner Kevin McAleenan was pressed on Trump’s wall, and he proceeded carefully, noting that in some places more barriers would help, while also stressing that technology and manpower are more suited to handling the particular security problems officials face. More intensive congressional questioning of officials on the utility of the wall as Trump envisions it would be illuminating.
McAleenan also said something else on ABC that hints at how Democrats should proceed. He repeatedly stressed that increased economic development aid to the Northern Triangle countries, something the State Department is advocating, would help mitigate the migrant crisis, since many asylum seekers are motivated by desperate poverty at home.
This puts him at odds with Trump’s threats to cut off aid to those countries — and more deeply, it’s premised on a completely different narrative of the crisis than the falsehood-riddled cartoon version that Trump has adopted as part of his wall push. Getting officials on the record in more detail on these deeper differences would also be useful.
“If congressional Democrats want to establish concrete factual narratives around policy issues, the public dimension of hearings may be an important tool,” Molly Reynolds, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told me. She said Democrats might use them to get officials to “make public commitments” and to “build a public record.”
Lies can go viral. But so can the truth.
In his book on Congress, Chafetz posited that such public communications constitute an important, if underappreciated, way that representatives exercise their powers and responsibilities. When members of Congress responsibly inform the public, it enhances the legislative branch’s power, reveals to voters what the executive branch has sought to mislead them upon, and ideally offers a competing view of what is actually in the national interest and what is not.
That mission may seem challenging — and hearings may seem hopelessly stodgy — in an era of social media that often ensures that lies go viral so quickly that the truth cannot keep up. But sometimes this works the other way. Think of recent things that went viral in an informative manner, such as revelations from elected Democrats about the conditions afflicting caged migrant children, or the testimony that the administration had been warned that family separations would psychologically traumatize them.
Well-staged, effectively presented truths can also go viral. Democrats should do all they can to make that happen wherever possible and get into the fight against Trump’s war on facts and empiricism wherever they can.