Nancy Pelosi is acting like Congress is a coequal branch of government
There are many things that changed on the day House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump’s attempt to pressure Ukraine to manufacture domestic political dirt against a likely opponent by using badly needed - and Congressionally approved - aid as leverage. There was suddenly an urgency to the House’s investigations. There has been a newfound and welcome seriousness in the coverage of oversight being provided by House Democrats. Pollsters began to try to gage public support for a formal impeachment inquiry, and consistently found historically high levels of support.
These things, important as they may be, are still stylistic changes. House Democrats have been investigating and providing oversight since the day they took over the House earlier this year.
Even the process of an impeachment investigation did not substantively begin with the Speaker’s announcement; it had begun several months prior. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler filed a lawsuit in July in an attempt to obtain grand jury material from the Special Counsel’s investigation on the Trump-Russia scandal, stating clearly then that the Committee was entitled to this information, which is only available to recognized judicial proceedings, because it was conducting an investigation on whether to recommend impeachment of the president. Speaker Pelosi did not announce a formal impeachment inquiry until late September, yet a federal court ruled last that Nadler’s filing was sufficient for the Court to accept that his committee was, in fact, in the middle of an impeachment proceeding this summer.
The one truly key substantive change that occurred with the Speaker’s announcement is that the House stopped asking for permission or negotiating for items or testimony it was entitled to. Shortly after the Speaker’s announcement of the formal inquiry, Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff - the Democrats’ lead “prosecutor”, if you will - made it clear that for the purposes of the inquiry, the House was not going to negotiate with the Administration on documents and testimony in required to do its Constitutional duty, asserting instead that stonewalling the inquiry will result in the House drawing negative inference. That’s fancy for “if you try to hide stuff, we are going to assume the thing you are hiding incriminates you.”
Pelosi, Schiff and the other leaders of the inquiry have not simply refused to play Trump’s game to try to stall Congress through what could have been an umpteen number of offers, counteroffers, and the like before the House got any testimony or document. House Democratic leaders went one step further and announced that they were not going to file any lawsuits attempting to force the cooperation from a hostile administration. They were, in effect, asserting that the only acceptable role for the judiciary - like the executive - in impeachment was to affirm and cooperate. The House would not accept either the administration or the courts inserting themselves into a process that, under the Constitution, is the sole prerogative of the House.
The powers of each of the branches of government are at their pinnacle when the Constitution is explicit about them, as it is about the House’s power to impeach.
It simply does not matter what the president thinks about the impeachment inquiry and whether they want to produce documents and testimony. Aside from some closely observed and narrowly defined privileges, they have no choice. Similarly, the House does not need permission from a court to conduct their explicit Constitutional duty.
This is the House, asserting itself with the authority of the Constitution, as a fully empowered, coequal body that in case of impeachment has powers superseding those of the Executive or the Judiciary. Indeed, under the Constitution, it is the only body with any powers of impeachment at all.
While everyone was standing around wondering how an impeachment process ever actually happens because “Trump would just gum it up in courts”, Pelosi and the House leadership decided simply not to play that game. They decided simply to assert their primacy in this process, formulating consequences they determine appropriate for refusal to cooperate.
And it worked. Despite a White House order to refuse to cooperate with Congress, key witnesses have been testifying, producing communications records, and doing their duty under subpoena from Congress. From former Ambassadors to current ones, from the State Department to the Pentagon, officials are aiding the inquiry as Trump powerlessly watches. On Tuesday, the first witness with first-hand knowledge of Trump’s call with Zelensky is set to testify, and he plans to confirm Trump’s quid-pro-quo.
Now that Speaker Pelosi has scheduled a full floor vote on the impeachment inquiry, it will not be on authorizing the inquiry itself - as Trump and Republicans have incessantly and baselessly claimed must happen for the inquiry to count as ‘legitimate’ in their eyes. Once again, Pelosi has asserted the House’s power - and her own, as the highest Constitutional officer in Congress - to conduct the inquiry as it sees fit. Instead, the scheduling of the vote on Thursday to affirm the investigation and set out the process of public hearings is a signal that Democrats are ready to begin presenting in public the evidence they have gathered. It goes without saying that the Speaker has the votes to pass her resolution.
This has been a process Speaker Pelosi and the House leadership has conducted with utmost seriousness but on their own terms. Trump has been at best an outside observer with little idea on the shoe to drop on a given day, and at worst, he has been sorely ineffective at even coalescing his own administration around a strategy to stonewall the House.
No wonder he hates it.
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