The Do’s and Don’ts for House Democrats in the Divided 116th Congress

After months of anticipation, a Democratic-controlled House will take power in January. It’s been eight long years since we had this opportunity and for many members of the new Democratic majority it will be their first time serving in a position of power.

I’ve had the honor of working for members of Congress in the majority and in the minority and while being in the majority is certainly rewarding, it is much more challenging. It will be all the more challenging in a political environment narrated by an unhinged President Donald Trump, and polarized by a House minority and an emboldened Republican-controlled Senate in no mood to do Democrats favors.

To make the 116th Congress as effective as possible, I offer the following suggestions to Democratic House members new and old:

Do Elect Nancy Pelosi as Your Next Speaker: If you did just this, you probably won’t need to read the rest of this op-ed as she will take care of the rest. Democrats need a wartime consigliere to navigate the pitfalls of being in power, keep the caucus together on tough votes and protect vulnerable members. This isn’t about the “face of the Democratic Party” — we won’t have one of those until someone wins the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. And if you are worried about how she might play in your re-election, you need to back up and first focus on how well Trump will perform in your district. 

Don’t Overinterpret Your Mandate: Voters are frustrated and they have elected a Democratic House majority to provide some much-needed balance in our politics. They want adults in the room. This has been a problem for both parties following switches in legislative power. In 2007, House and Senate Democrats who had just won majorities amid Bush fatigue wanted to keep their promise to put an end to the Iraq War. They soon found out the only means to doing so was cutting off funding for the war, which was not palatable to voters or most representatives. Congressional Republicans under the Obama administration brought the country to the brink of default and succeeded in shutting down the government for 16 days in 2013. History shows they were not viewed as heroes for these accomplishments.

Don’t Vote to Impeach Donald Trump: Ok. So, I may have lost some of you on this one, but hear me out. Recall the previous paragraph, then remind yourself that without a smoking gun, a vote to impeach would tear the House Democratic Caucus apart. Given the number of new members who won in traditionally Republican seats, a passing vote is not even a certainty, so don’t risk it. And while Trump may not be a sympathetic figure, a vote to impeach would only polarize voters more. Further, regardless of current saber rattling, I doubt the future Democratic presidential nominee — whoever that may be — will not want to litigate this on the campaign trail in 2020.

Do Investigate Everything:  Ok, I’m hoping to win some of you back here. The fact is that congressional Republicans have fallen down on their job to provide responsible oversight to this administration, instead rallying around the leader of their party and cowering at the thought of crossing him. Even those investigations they conducted were done sloppily and without credible conclusion. This is one of the reasons we are now in the majority and we will be judged by how effectively we hold the Trump administration accountable. We do not have to sensationalize the findings; shining a light on the misconducts of this administration in a responsible manner will go a long way towards our success in 2020. 

Don’t Take the Bait: On what you might ask? Admittedly I can’t tell you exactly what may come, but consider the modus operandi of our current president: Create a controversy out of whole cloth, use the media to fan the flames of the fake controversy and then distract from whatever the real controversy may be. When we were in the minority it was ok to swing at every pitch, but now we must be disciplined in the arguments and critiques we lay out to the American people so as to strengthen our credibility and positioning for 2020.

Do Pass Forceful Legislation: I’m a pragmatist at heart, but if past is prologue I think it will be near-impossible to gain House Republican support on most any Democratic agenda item. Therefore, starting in the middle might not be the best negotiating strategy. Since we need to produce legislation that can be supported by the vast majority of our diverse caucus, it makes sense to send the Republican-controlled Senate legislation that makes them a bit uncomfortable but leaves room for negotiation. Which brings us to…

Don’t Let Perfect be the Enemy of the Good: The next two years may very well be a legislative standstill with both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and President Trump unwilling to negotiate with House Democrats. However, if the opportunity does arise to deal, we need to decide whether our first priority is sticking it to Trump or delivering for the American people. While one is not exclusive of the other, it is important to remember Democrats have only taken back one of three levers of power (the courts withstanding), which is not enough to dictate all terms. There will be members of our caucus who need bipartisan wins going into their election cycle, and we must decide how to provide them with those victories without giving away the farm.

No one goes to Congress with the intent to lose two years later. With an unpredictable presidential primary season on the horizon and a still-unsettled electorate, House Democrats must weigh every decision carefully. They are no longer simply the opposition party. They have a well-deserved seat at the table and a lot of people counting on them. 


Rodell Mollineau is a partner at ROKK Solutions. He is a veteran of three U.S. Senate offices and served as a senior leadership aide to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

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