Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has received quite a bit of criticism recently for her apparent reluctance to advance the impeachment of President Donald Trump. These criticisms are important, and in line with a good many other recent analyses, but I fear they misstate the power that Pelosi, or any legislative leader, actually has.
To highlight a recent example, Elizabeth Spiers at The New Republic penned a tough critique of Pelosi just the other day, criticizing her for extensively highlighting the dangers that Trump poses to the nation in various fundraising appeals and speeches while doing nothing to actually end his presidency. Yes, the prospects of removing Trump from office are slim—the Republican majority in the Senate is unlikely to convict him—but Democrats pushing for impeachment at all presumably carries some institutional weight that inaction does not. Importantly, Spiers highlights the nihilism that can result from a failure to impeach:
If Pelosi treats Trump as an aberration and continues to be passive in the hopes that we can all power through until next November, there's no accountability mechanism built into our system of democracy that has any real credibility. There's no crime so severe that Trump can't get away with it. ... That's especially true for the offense that should be the most straightforward impeachment charge in this case—obstructing justice when our system of government works by design to prevent the president from abusing his power for personal gain. ... Norms and laws only work when they're enforced.
I think this is generally correct, and I argued similarly here last month. But I think this argument pins too much specifically on Pelosi.
Note this recent piece from Politico about a Democratic House Caucus meeting following Robert Mueller's testimony on Wednesday. Here's an especially telling excerpt:
As she has for months, Pelosi argued to her colleagues that the "slow, methodical approach" employed by House Democrats is the right way to move forward, despite the fact that more than 90 of her members have now called for an impeachment inquiry to begin.
There are 235 Democrats in the House. It takes 218 to impeach. Only 90 or so have called for an impeachment inquiry. Now, that doesn't mean that the others are opposed to it, but they're not exactly clamoring for it, either. Most likely, many of them, particularly those from competitive districts, are simply not sure what to do. They want to hold Trump accountable, but they don't want to lose their jobs and cost their party the House in the process.
People tend to assume that leaders of legislative chambers have the power to build a majority on pretty much any issue they want. After all, they obviously have the confidence of their vast and ideologically diverse caucus; surely their caucus will go along with their judgment, especially if the leader is willing to take most of the political heat.
But that doesn't accurately depict the nature of the power that Pelosi, or any House speaker, actually wields. There are two key things one needs to understand about the power a speaker has:
- One power the speaker has is agenda control, and a speaker will almost never bring a bill to the floor that they are confident will lose, unless they are trying to discredit that bill or its authors.
- It is very difficult to convince members to do things that they think will cost them their jobs. The majority has kept single-payer health plans, assault weapons bans, free college proposals, human life amendments, and more off the floor for fear they wouldn't pass and would damage their colleagues' political fortunes. Horse-trading doesn't work that well with colleagues who have been fired by their constituents.
Pelosi most likely does not have a majority that supports impeachment right now, and it's folly to assume that she can simply manufacture one. She may well not want to push an impeachment that will result in acquittal in the Senate, where it would take a two-thirds vote to remove the president, but it would be even more embarrassing for Democrats—and encouraging for Trump—if the party brought an impeachment bill to the House floor and it didn't even get the simple majority needed for passage.
One thing Pelosi could be doing (and might well be doing, for all I know) is trying to convince recalcitrant colleagues that impeachment is the right call and that it will not be damaging to them politically. From her public utterances, however, it does not sound like she believes this. Perhaps, those members were who the Mueller hearings were designed to convince, and there's little evidence that the hearings had the desired effect.
Pelosi finds herself in the same position that John Boehner did during much of his time as speaker: trying to balance her desire to keep her job and keep her moderate colleagues in the majority with the pressing demands from more ideologically extreme members of the caucus for immediate action.
Not that people should feel sympathy for this position. It's the nature of the job. But to assume that she can conjure a majority where one doesn't exist is to have unrealistic expectations of the office of speaker and of legislatures in general.
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