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Here’s why Pelosi won’t allow the House to pursue impeachment — at least not yet

But the speaker is giving investigating committees more freedom — and that matters.

- June 14, 2019

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is still resisting calls from the Democratic Caucus to formally open an impeachment inquiry of President Trump. True, only five dozen House Democrats are on record in favor, as I’ll examine below. But support for launching an impeachment investigation probably runs deeper in her caucus and certainly resonates with Democratic Party activists beyond Capitol Hill.

Instead, the House is fortifying its investigatory powers and claiming to stay focused on policy.

Here’s what you need to know about what the speaker is up to.

1. Keep the majority at any cost

As has been true for past House speakers, a top priority for Pelosi (D-Calif.) is keeping the House in her party’s hands after the 2020 elections. Most important, Democrats have to keep the seats they took from Republicans in 2018. Those Democrats largely won on GOP turf — beating almost all of the roughly two dozen Republicans from districts narrowly won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Pelosi knows these are her “majority makers”: Democrats who won in Republican or swing districts, often by slim margins.

If the public broadly supported opening impeachment proceedings against Trump, Pelosi might open the floodgates to such an inquiry. But the public remains lukewarm; even Democrats are split. A recent Marist Poll noted that only a third of Democrats want the House to start impeachment proceedings; another third want the House to continue investigating. Among independents, support for pursuing impeachment is even lower.

Pelosi seems to want to dodge an impeachment inquiry to protect her marginal Democrats, who fear retribution in 2020 in swing districts. We can see that by looking at which House Democrats have publicly endorsed opening impeachment proceedings. I plotted Democrats along two lines — what share of their districts’ vote they won in 2018 on one and, on the other, their districts’ partisan leanings, as measured by the 2016 presidential vote.

Based on the New York Times’s running tally of Democrats’ positions on impeachment, Democratic representatives who publicly endorsed impeachment proceedings before this month appear in lime green; new supporters, in blue. With one exception in the lower left corner (Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey), Democrats going public all won with over 60 percent of the vote and all hail from reasonably safe Democratic districts. In contrast, those Democrats in the lower left corner, who narrowly won in 2018 and represent GOP-leaning districts, have almost uniformly chosen not to endorse impeachment.

Democratic members of the House from safer districts are more likely to favor impeachment.
Democratic members of the House from safer districts are more likely to favor impeachment.

Pelosi’s refusal to pursue impeachment — despite the imploring by over half of the House Judiciary Committee Democrats — seems firmly rooted in her party’s electoral vulnerability for 2020.

2. Don’t count on the GOP

Pelosi’s critics argue that the public knows very little about the findings of the Mueller report. They say that’s a prime purpose of impeachment hearings: Dramatize Mueller’s findings and make them real for voters.

Supporters of advancing impeachment face a Catch-22. Many say that opening hearings could broaden public support for impeachment, noting that support for removing Richard M. Nixon from the presidency more than doubled during the Watergate hearings. (Jonathan Bernstein cautions against such quick conclusions.) But Pelosi won’t agree to open hearings, because there’s too little public support.

Why won’t Pelosi take that gamble? Even aside from protecting her majority-makers, the partisan and electoral worlds have changed dramatically since Watergate. First, in 1973, large Democratic majorities controlled the House and Senate. Second, congressional floor votes today polarize far more often along party lines than they did in the Nixon era. Third, an increasingly partisan electorate leaves GOP support for Trump high. Fourth, today’s record-low unemployment and inflation mean that voters give Trump higher marks for managing the economy than for his overall performance. Compare that with the 1970s, when stagflation and oil shocks gradually undermined Nixon’s public approval.

Barring a rupture in GOP support for the president, Pelosi seems unlikely to count on the GOP.

3. Fortify investigations

Instead, Democrats this week bolstered House procedures for investigating the Trump administration. At issue was how committees confront past or current administration officials — including Attorney General William P. Barr and former White House counsel Donald McGahn — when they defy subpoenas from House committees for documents or testimony.

Under existing committee rules, a majority on House standing committees authorize their chairs to issue subpoenas when witnesses or officials won’t cooperate. To enforce subpoenas, House rules require that the chamber vote each time a committee seeks to go to federal court to hold a witness in civil contempt of Congress.

The House this week adopted a new procedure to fortify House investigations. First, it allows the Judiciary Committee to pursue civil enforcement of its subpoenas in court against Barr and McGahn. Second, more important, it authorizes committees in the future to skip a House floor vote when they seek to enforce a subpoena in court. The new rule allows the panel to secure approval only from the chamber’s Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, conveniently controlled by Democratic leaders. House rules now make plain that BLAG votes are equivalent to a vote by the full House.

4. Share the power

These changes are more than legal niceties; they could benefit Pelosi. As others have observed, the new process frees up floor time for Democrats’ policy priorities. Few such measures will make it through the Senate graveyard to the president’s desk. But majority parties in competitive election years often prefer legislating to send a message their party base rather than to pursue new laws. Moving legal votes off the House floor also allows Democratic leaders to reserve floor times for any particularly salient legal moves against the administration.

These changes also share some of Pelosi’s power to shape the agenda with the many committees investigating the administration. Only five of the 21 standing committee chairs in the House publicly favor an impeachment inquiry. That’s not surprising: The Judiciary Committee would hog the spotlight should the House consider impeachment. Empowering committees to enforce their subpoenas in court — without waiting for party leaders to dole out floor time — could pay dividends for Pelosi by bolstering her standing more broadly across the caucus.

Pelosi could always change her mind and greenlight the Judiciary Committee to consider articles of impeachment against the president. But as long as her electoral calculus leans heavily against, expect her to find other ways to keep her caucus on the same page as elections get close.