At this time of year, we should assess how things are going. From my perspective, I am somewhat hopeful. Here’s how.
I am hopeful that the new year will bring beneficial changes to our politics. Perhaps the new Congress will return to its duty to govern rather than continue quarreling. Republicans and Democrats can confront several issues where they can work together. Some of these may seem unlikely, given the history of the first two years of the Trump administration, when congressional Republicans simply did whatever the president wanted.
But it is a new day as the Democrats take over the leadership of the House of Representatives. A priority and a place to start is infrastructure, with improvements and replacements of bridges, roads, sidewalks, and so on. The president, as a candidate, argued this was one of his priorities, and now is the time to move forward.
Another is for Congress to take the lead in foreign policy: We saw that just this month when the Senate rebuked Saudi Arabia for its involvement in the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It demanded the end of U.S. military support of the Saudi war in Yemen (the resolution passed 56-41). The Senate then unanimously blamed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder.
For one of the first times, the Senate voted against President Trump, who has declined to place responsibility on MBS, as he is commonly known in the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Commentators have observed that the president and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have based their faith in the prince largely for political and, some say, their own commercial interests.
Other areas of congressional impact on foreign policy are now in play, including dealing with Russia, especially in its expansionist efforts in Ukraine; China and the tariff war; and North Korea and its nuclear weapons aspirations. It is true that the executive branch holds major responsibility for foreign policy, but Congress holds the purse strings, and it can exercise its budgetary authority to demand change.
Speaking of the budget, as of this writing, 25 percent of the government is still closed after the President told Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi that he would proudly take responsibility for a shutdown if Congress failed to fund the wall between the United States and Mexico.The president has demanded $5 billion for a border wall, which most experts say is unnecessary and ineffective. The wall also has environmental risks.
Speaking of the environment, it may seem Pollyannaish, but I am hopeful that the new Congress will renew its environmental efforts on climate change, focusing on alternative sources of energy, despite the president’s commitment to fossil fuels like gas, oil, and coal.
A devastating climate report issued on behalf of the federal government itself the day after Thanksgiving denied everything that President Trump has claimed: initially, that climate change was “a Chinese hoax,” but now that even if it is occurring, it is not due to human activity. But the National Climate Assessment warned of coming dangers like blistering summer temperatures, freezing cold winters, more and harsher fires, devastating blizzards, rapidly melting ice, and higher seas, along with more deaths and the destruction of property.
When asked what he thought of the assessment, the president simply said, “I don’t believe it.” But this is categorically not a partisan issue. Both Republicans and Democrats better believe it.
Another area of cooperation is in criminal justice reform, which for the moment the White House appears to support. The Senate, in the lame-duck session, passed a House version that ends mandatory sentencing, reduces prison time, and provides job training for inmates when they are released. Prison reform is a key issue for the Koch brothers, who by and large favor conservative candidates and positions. Koch spokesman Mark Holden recently noted, “We think the whole criminal justice system needs to be revamped from beginning to end, quite frankly … It’s really a poverty trap, and it disproportionately impacts people of color.”
Although the Republicans increased their majority in the Senate in the midterm elections, they could also work with the Democrats on judicial nominations (the Senate has sole confirmation authority). Senate leaders could influence the president to nominate centrist judges who view the law as independent, objective, and neutral factfinders.
That said, in my view, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, while not as centrist as I would have hoped, would have been the nominee of any, not just the most, conservative president. Their service on the U.S. Court of Appeals indicates that their votes are not always predictable. We may well see this playing out at times over the years of their tenure on the Supreme Court. The same is true for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.: Now at the center of an ideologically split tribunal, he could surprise a lot of liberals and Democrats as he struggles to maintain the court’s dignity and integrity.
And then there is healthcare: Earlier this month a Texas federal judge, Reed O’Connor, overturned the Affordable Care Act (the ACA or Obamacare, as it is commonly known). He ruled the entire act was unconstitutional once Congress passed last year’s tax-reform bill, which included the repeal of the mandate, a provision that every American possess health care at a certain level or pay a tax. But the tax reform act passed last December stated that the mandate tax would be $0. Judge O’Connor ruled that without the tax, the whole act was unconstitutional because Chief Justice Roberts upheld the ACA based on Congress’s tax and spending power.
But legal scholars, conservative and liberal, have argued that even if the tax is now $0, the rest of the act remains intact. That said, why not revisit healthcare? Republicans have long argued that they have a better plan. Democrats should work with them to implement this improvement.
These are just a few areas of cooperation. The problems looming over this hopefulness are the woes President Trump has brought on himself over the past three years, from the moment of his announcement he was a candidate until today. He continues to view those who criticize him as “enemies.”
These include not only those like Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and “fixer,” who faces three years imprisonment for actions he said he took on Trump’s direction. They also include others who have turned state’s evidence against him, along with the U.S. intelligence agencies for their united stance that Russia did in fact try to sway the election to him; the U.S. law enforcement agencies for what he considers their anti-Trump actions; the national media for its honest, straightforward coverage of his administration; and his Department of Justice for the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller to investigate Trump campaign ties to Russia.
Numerous criminal investigations are currently underway at the federal level in Washington, led by Mueller, but also by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York and the New York Attorney General’s Office. These include all things Trump: the Trump Organization, the Trump campaign, the Trump inaugural committee, and the Trump administration. A recent Oxford University report in the Washington Post revealed how extensive Russian interference was in the 2016 presidential election. There is no doubt how dangerous this is to American democratic values and ideals, and if some Americans were involved in facilitating this effort, they need to be held accountable, no matter who they are.
I am hopeful, finally, that these investigations continue, but at the same time, I am hopeful that a new day will begin with the new Congress when it takes the oath of office on Jan. 3.
Jack Fruchtman, a seasonal Aquinnah resident, teaches constitutional law and politics at Maryland’s Towson University.