House Speaker Nancy Pelosi loved seeing a “full house” as she walked out to her weekly briefing.
“Winning is good,” Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Thursday.
She took another victory lap from her standoff with President Trump that reopened parts of the government after a 35-day shutdown. But this past week also represented the first fruits of victory from winning back the majority in the November midterm elections: Democrats led their first round of hearings in House committees.
The Budget Committee asked experts about soaring deficits that followed President Trump’s signing of the 2017 GOP tax-cut plan. The Judiciary Committee pushed proposals to expand ballot access to voters. And the Ways and Means Committee debated proposals to forbid health insurers from jacking up rates on customers with preexisting conditions.
On Tuesday, Pelosi finally had her entire team on the field throughout three House office buildings, hitting on all the themes of the 2018 campaign and beyond.
“We now control the agenda. Before, we had to almost beg to get them to even look at an issue that we were interested in, and even if it was something they were interested in, they would not necessarily let us present witnesses,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said of the Republicans.
In some ways, the 116th Congress didn’t really start until last Tuesday.
For almost four weeks prior, Pelosi fought with Trump over the shutdown in something that felt like a long overtime battle from last year. The House committees largely stood silent as they filled out their rosters with new members and first-time chairmen plotted their agenda.
Now, the chairmen are on the move, both in hearings to advance their legislative goals and in summoning administration officials to the witness stand. The two years ahead came into clearer focus, with Trump’s standing in the Capitol relegated to two things he has been reluctant to do so far — play defense or compromise.
“You’re not getting any accomplishments without Democratic buy-in,” said Daniel Meyer, the former director of legislative affairs for George W. Bush’s White House.
Bush hired Meyer after Pelosi first became speaker, following huge Democratic wins in the 2006 midterms. He has seen new House majorities from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, first squaring off with the Clinton White House in the mid-1990s as chief of staff to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and then defending the Bush administration in 2007 and 2008.
Meyer believes a House majority can overwhelm a presidency with hearings and subpoenas. “You do spend an incredible amount of time basically reacting to what’s happening on up on the Hill, rather than helping drive what’s going on up on the Hill,” said Meyer, now president of Duberstein Group, a bipartisan lobbying firm. “There’s just a lot more time spent in the reactive mode.”
Three Trump Cabinet secretaries are already clashing with Democratic chairmen about when they will appear before their committees.
The biggest hurdle these chairmen face might be their odd status as some of the oldest “rookies” in politics. Four — Cummings and Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) and Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) — are older than 65 and have been in Congress more than 20 years.
Before Tuesday, none had ever chaired a full committee hearing.
“It was good to be in the chair as opposed to the ranking minority spot,” Nadler said. At 71, he served 26 years before becoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Early hiccups are bound to occur. During his first hearing Tuesday, on the high cost of prescription drugs, Cummings referred to his counterpart, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), as “Mr. Chairman” because he spent the previous eight years as the ranking Democrat on the panel under GOP chairmen.
Nadler said there was a psychological toll to serving in the minority. Highly charged issues like immigration and abortion rights simply split along party lines, always leaving Democrats on the short end.
“Whatever the merits of the case, whatever the brilliant logic of your argument, you were going to lose the vote,” Nadler said, pausing to reflect on his new post. “It’s good not to be in that position anymore.”
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) runs a weekly meeting of chairmen to review which legislation is ready to move to the full House and to help them talk through which committee is holding which set of hearings.
“The one thing that we don’t need to be doing is stepping on each other here,” Cummings said.
Meyer said Pelosi’s first and second iterations as speaker present different passions for liberal voters. In 2007, at her peak as a liberal icon, she held dozens of votes to try force a withdrawal from Iraq. But she eventually gave in and allowed war funding to pass.
“That was the right and smart decision, from their point of view as well as the country’s. To have tried to hold off funding for troops would have been a political disaster,” Meyer said.
Democrats went on to win more than 20 more House seats in 2008 as Barack Obama swept into the White House and a massive majority in the Senate set the stage for the most aggressive liberal agenda in almost 50 years.
But that sort of tactical retreat from Pelosi last decade might now sound like political cowardice to the new generation of liberal activists who want a full constitutional clash with Trump.
Cummings is trying to set the right expectations. Trump is still president and Republicans run the Senate, so Democratic chairmen face limitations. “It will not necessarily stop him from doing some of the things that he’s doing, but probably slow him down,” he said.
The stakes only get bigger each week.
Just look at the hearings on tap for this Thursday and Friday: Neal’s Ways and Means Committee reviews proposals to require presidents to publicly disclose their taxes; Nadler’s panel hears from acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker; and the House Intelligence Committee receives private testimony from Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen.
Pelosi believes that her victory breeds more victories, that the first big win, on the shutdown, sets the stage to continue playing offense against Trump.
“It’s always preferable. It’s all about the numbers: more points, more votes, more whatever,” she said.