David A. Graham: Trump’s impeachment finger trap
Here, though, the goal is not to win a policy dispute over health care or taxes. It’s to preserve Congress’s traditional, constitutionally sanctioned role in overseeing the executive—an essential task for countering abuse of executive power regardless of the party identification of the president. And House Democrats would be doing exactly what the Framers envisioned when they assigned to the legislature exclusive authority over borrowing and spending. For the Democrats, the only effective response to the norm-busting aggression of the Trump administration is to bust some norms themselves.
The stakes are high. The Trump team has sought to stymie 20 different congressional inquiries. The conflicts that have drawn the most attention involve subpoenas related to the Mueller report and to Trump’s tax files. But the interbranch battle is about more than any specific document or witness appearance. Without the power to compel testimony and obtain documents, Congress cannot fulfill its role in overseeing the executive.
Congress’s traditional tools to enforce its subpoenas are either symbolic or archaic. Refusing to comply with a congressional subpoena is a federal crime, but no one expects Trump’s Justice Department to prosecute Trump-administration officials for defying Democrat-controlled committees. The House can file a federal lawsuit to enforce a subpoena, but those cases can take years to resolve. In an earlier era, the House might have dispatched its sergeant-at-arms to arrest a subpoena scofflaw, but that option hasn’t been used in more than a half century.
Realistically, the House will not lock any administration official in jail anytime soon. What it can do is force federal agencies to shutter their doors on October 1, when the federal government’s fiscal year 2019 budget expires. Or the House could up the ante and refuse to raise the debt ceiling, in which case the federal government’s fiscal slack will likely run out in September or October. Unless both chambers of Congress vote to lift the debt cap, the United States will default.
Quinta Jurecic: Impeachment is a refusal to accept the unacceptable
Some House Democrats realize they can capitalize on these looming deadlines. Representative Adam Schiff of California suggested last month that House Democrats might tie funding for federal agencies to compliance with congressional subpoenas. A bolder move would be to add the debt ceiling to the pot. House Democrats might tell Trump: Cooperate with reasonable oversight demands, or out go the lights come autumn.
The problem, of course, is that Trump may refuse to give in to the Democrats’ threats. He will know that if the Democrats follow through, the consequences will be felt by ordinary Americans who depend upon government safety-net programs, federal workers who rely on regular paychecks, and savers who will see the value of their Treasury bonds tumble. While voters overwhelmingly faulted Trump—not congressional Democrats—for the last government shutdown, the source of the last shutdown was Trump’s insistence that Congress pay for a border wall that Trump had previously promised Mexico would fund. If they tied these bills to compliance with subpoenas, Democrats might be seen as the instigators.