Something notable happened Tuesday in Congress, but you probably missed it. And this is extremely relevant to the debate roiling the Democratic Party right now, about whether to impeach President Trump, how to confront him from now until next November if they don’t impeach him and exactly what argument Democrats should present to the voters as they make their case to be given control of the federal government.
The House on Tuesday passed a bill that would offer a path to citizenship to more than 2 million undocumented immigrants, including “dreamers” who were brought to the United States as children.
The vote was 237 to 187 for the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019, which would grant dreamers 10 years of legal residence status if they meet certain requirements. They would then receive permanent green cards after completing at least two years of higher education or military service, or after working for three years.
Cheers erupted in the chamber when the bill received the necessary votes, along with chants of “Yes we can!” Seven Republicans broke ranks to join all 230 Democrats present in backing the bill.
Republicans, including even Trump, have at various times claimed to want to give "dreamers" a path to citizenship (though Trump ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, putting them in limbo). But this bill will not be taken up in the Senate, because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) doesn’t particularly care.
That makes the bill largely symbolic (though symbols can be important). Because journalists know that the bill won’t become law anytime soon, they don’t treat this as a particularly newsworthy event. The Post, which covers the federal government more comprehensively than nearly any other news organization, wrote that article about it. But most outlets ignored it entirely.
So what does that have to do with impeachment and the 2020 election? One key argument against impeaching Trump is that the spectacle would distract attention from issues that favor Democrats. As political theorist Rob Goodman put it in a recent opinion piece, impeachment “would focus voters on the Trump Tower meeting instead of student loan forgiveness, the firing of James Comey instead of protecting and building on Obamacare.”
The problem is that public attention doesn’t operate according to that kind of zero-sum equation. If it did, right now — because there’s no impeachment going on — the airwaves would be humming with intense policy discussions, and around every water cooler voters would be passionately debating the merits of the Democrats’ latest proposal on health care or student loans.
But they aren’t. Not impeaching Trump doesn’t force the media and the voters to “focus” on policy issues. Adam Jentleson, a former aide to Sen. Harry Reid, explained this well:
Reporters cover news, and only events that drive news can shift the message. House Democrats are understandably proud of having run and won on health care in the 2018 midterms. But their campaign messages were buoyed by a constant flood of major health care news coming out of Washington, DC, driven by the very real threat that Republicans would repeal or replace the Affordable Care Act. But since Democrats took back the House, that’s not going to happen. This is a good thing, but it severely limits Democrats’ ability to drive news on health care. Passing bills in the House that are guaranteed to go nowhere in McConnell’s Senate, as House Democrats recently did with bills to strengthen Obamacare and lower drug prices, will not drive a message.
There are other reasons one might oppose opening an impeachment inquiry; I don’t find them particularly persuasive, but you may disagree. There is no reason to believe, however, that setting aside impeachment will allow Democrats to focus everyone’s attention on their preferred policy issues.
As Jentleson says, what gets attention are events. And not just that, but events that are inherently controversial. The dreamers bill passing the House is an event, but it’s missing the elements that will lead news organizations to give it featured coverage: the potential for fighting between the parties, an uncertain outcome, the revelation of new information, or some kind of meaningful change that puts the “new” in “news.” Republicans are barely bothering to argue against it, because they know that for the moment it will fall into the yawning void of McConnell’s Senate, never to be heard from again as long as he’s in control.
That doesn’t mean that impeachment is the only way Democrats can grab the attention of the news media and the public. Unfortunately, we sometimes act as if their only choices are impeaching the president or sitting on their hands. What they can do is forcefully use the power they have in the House, just as Republicans did when they had that power. You may recall that the reason we learned that Hillary Clinton used a private email system while she was secretary of state was that it emerged in the eighth, yes, eighth investigation they mounted of the tragedy in Benghazi.
As I wrote on Tuesday, we’re finally going to get hearings in the Intelligence and Judiciary committees on the Mueller report, which is an excellent start. Yet for some reason, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) has been dragging his feet on getting Trump’s tax returns. Though he has requested the federal returns, he seems in no particular hurry to confront the administration’s stonewalling.
In fact, New York state just passed a law to provide the president’s state returns to Congress upon request, but Neal has refused to request them. Why? As Bloomberg reports, “Neal has said he fears that getting the state returns would bolster Trump administration arguments that Congress is on a political fishing expedition.” Oh, well forget it then.
To be clear, even if they can’t become law, Democrats should keep passing bills like the one to protect the dreamers. They set a marker of what the party stands for and can be easily brought up again once they can actually be turned into law. But if Democrats want to use the power they have in the House to do something substantively worthwhile and make Trump’s defeat in 2020 more likely, they’re going to have to get much more aggressive.