Beyond impeachment, is Congress getting anything else done?

Why We Wrote This

Lawmakers are struggling to make progress on spending, trade, and other priorities. The impasses would likely have existed even without an impeachment inquiry – but it isn’t making compromise any easier.  

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
At the U.S. Capitol, House Democrats are set to launch public impeachment hearings probing whether President Donald Trump violated his oath of office by coercing Ukraine to investigate political rival Joe Biden and his family.

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History shows it’s possible for Congress to accomplish other things during impeachment hearings. 

Between the start of House impeachment proceedings in October 1998 and acquittal by the Senate the following February, President Bill Clinton signed nearly 150 bills into law. In today’s extreme partisan era, however, Congress has become far less productive – even without impeachment. Just under 70 laws have been signed in the 10 months that the 116th Congress has been in session.

Funding for the government is currently set to expire in a little over a week. And while lawmakers appear poised to pass a stopgap measure, they’re far from resolving the thorny details needed to avert a shutdown before year’s end. 

What’s likely to dominate lawmakers’ attention this week are the testimonies of three State Department officials, whose appearances on Wednesday and Friday will be the first to be televised in the House’s month-and-a-half-long impeachment probe. It’s hard to imagine much bipartisan compromise taking place in that environment.

“The incentive for cooperation and dealmaking is very low,” says Bill Schneider, a professor of government at George Mason University. Impeachment “absorbs all the attention.”

As the House impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump launches into high-profile public hearings, Congress is facing another key test: whether it can accomplish anything else in the current environment. 

Funding for the government is currently set to expire in a little over a week. And while lawmakers appear poised to pass a temporary stopgap measure, they’re far from resolving the thorny details needed to avert a shutdown before year’s end.

So far, none of the 12 must-pass appropriations bills for 2020 have made it through both the House and Senate. The biggest sticking point: money for President Trump’s wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, the same issue that last year led to the longest government shutdown in United States history. 

Yet what’s likely to dominate news cycles and lawmakers’ attention this week are the testimonies of three State Department officials, whose appearances on Wednesday and Friday will be the first to be televised in the House’s month-and-a-half-long impeachment probe.

The hearings could intensify the deep partisan divide already aggravated by the impeachment inquiry. Congressional Republicans have mostly stood behind the president, either asserting that Mr. Trump did not engage in a problematic “quid pro quo” with the Ukrainian government or insisting that such an action wouldn’t be impeachable anyway. Democrats say their constitutional oaths demand they hold the president accountable for behavior that, in their view, amounts to leveraging U.S. foreign policy for personal political gain.

It’s hard to imagine much bipartisan compromise – crucial to passing a budget – taking place in this environment.

Neither party has much to gain politically from a shutdown, providing some impetus for lawmakers to try to avoid one. Still, “the incentive for cooperation and dealmaking is very low,” says Bill Schneider, a professor of government at George Mason University. 

Impeachment “absorbs all the attention,” he adds. “It escalates the bitterness, anger, anxiety, tension. Unless there’s a terrible crisis, nothing else happens.” 

The Clinton example

History shows it’s possible for Congress to be productive during impeachment hearings. 

By the time the House voted to impeach President Bill Clinton in December 1998, the Republican-held Congress had already passed the next year’s budget. Between the start of House impeachment proceedings in October 1998 and acquittal by by the Senate in February, President Clinton signed nearly 150 bills into law.

In today’s era of extreme partisanship, however, Congress has become far less productive – even without impeachment. Just under 70 laws – including eight that renamed post offices – have been signed in the 10 months that the 116th Congress has been in session, a figure that reflects years of declining legislative activity. A 2018 analysis by The Washington Post and ProPublica shows that as the political center has shrunk, and as lawmakers increasingly respond to the demands of their base, Congress’s capacity for deliberative dealmaking has withered. 

“The Congress we’re working with is a completely different institution in many ways than the Congress that faced the Clinton impeachment,” says Aubrey Neal, who manages federal government affairs at the R Street Institute, a center-right think tank. 

Mr. Clinton actually made attention to his “day job” a key component of his political strategy. In public appearances, he pointedly ignored the impeachment effort and focused on the business of governance. 

“He didn’t use it to rally his party; he didn’t use it to defend himself,” says Professor Schneider, who at the time was a political analyst for CNN. “He made it clear that it wasn’t distracting him.”

Even after the House voted to impeach him, Mr. Clinton kept to his message, vowing to continue to work on behalf of the American people. “It’s what I’ve tried to do for six years,” he said. “It’s what I intend to do for two more until the last hour of the last day of my term.”

President Trump’s strategy has been markedly different. Instead of trying to ignore impeachment, he has tended to focus the spotlight directly on it – counterpunching on Twitter and in public statements, and attacking House Democrats and the witnesses testifying against him as motivated by partisanship. 

The day the House voted to formalize impeachment proceedings, he called the inquiry “The Greatest Witch Hunt in American History.” He’s questioned the credibility of the whistleblower who first drew attention to the now-famous July 25 call between him and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and declared the whole investigation a “hoax” perpetrated by the “fake news media” and Democrats – especially Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff. “It is a Pelosi, Schiff, Scam against the Republican Party and me,” the president tweeted

The effect has been to intensify partisan divisions, with his allies in Congress echoing his language. 

At a Trump rally in his state Wednesday night, Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy criticized Speaker Pelosi for moving forward with the probe. “I don’t mean any disrespect,” Senator Kennedy said, “but it must suck to be that dumb.” (The senator later defended his comments, saying that Speaker Pelosi’s decision “takes American politics to a new low.”) 

“Impeachment is the ultimate partisan exercise,” says Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute. “As a result, it’s going to shut progress down.” 

Work behind the scenes

Despite all the vitriol, there’s at least some bipartisan work going on behind the scenes. The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), Mr. Trump’s signature trade deal, is in the “last mile” of negotiations, Ms. Pelosi said at the end of October. Lawmakers are reportedly looking to announce a deal by Thanksgiving and could even hold a vote before year’s end. Across-the-aisle discussions are also underway in both chambers over several measures meant to lower the cost of prescription drugs.

There’s also been plenty of activity on a one-sided basis: The Democratic-controlled House has, over the past 10 months, passed hundreds of bills that were never taken up by the GOP-held Senate, which in turn has confirmed a record number of federal judges with almost no Democratic support. 

Although a shutdown is still possible – with border-wall spending just one of many issues lawmakers are stuck on – neither House Democrats nor Senate Republicans want to be on the hook for such a crisis heading into a big election cycle, notes Steven Smith, political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, in an email.

Ms. Pelosi has been determined to show that House Democrats can simultaneously conduct an impeachment inquiry and address key legislative issues, while Republicans remain sensitive to having taken much of the blame for past shutdowns. The usual legislative stalemates would have existed whether or not impeachment was a factor, Professor Smith points out. 

“Political calculations are proving more important to the legislative agenda than the time taken to consider impeachment,” he writes. 

On the other hand, even if lawmakers do strike a deal in time, the president hasn’t ruled out the possibility of vetoing it. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York expressed concerns last week that Mr. Trump might use a shutdown as “a diversion away from impeachment.” 

“I’m not expecting a shutdown,” says Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “I would expect that [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell would really try to convince the president that this was just one other problem he doesn’t need right now.”

“On the other hand, the president seems to enjoy rejecting the advice of other people in his party,” she adds. “Republicans telling him that may cause him to do exactly the opposite.”

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