By Molly Ball
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been right about a lot.
- She was right in the early 1990s, when, as a fierce critic of China’s human rights record,
- she rejected the bipartisan faith that economic liberalization in China would inevitably lead to greater democratization.
- She was right again in 2003 when, as the leader of the House Democrats, she was one of the few party leaders to oppose the war in Iraq.
- She was right during the 2008 primary, when she rejected the entreaties of powerful allies of Hillary Clinton — Harvey Weinstein among them — to get behind a plan to use superdelegates to help Clinton take the Democratic nomination from Barack Obama.
- Pelosi was right throughout Obama’s administration, when she struggled to make the president see that his fetish for bipartisanship was leading him to make pointless concessions to Republicans, who would never negotiate in good faith.
In “Pelosi,” Molly Ball’s admiring and illuminating new biography of the most powerful woman in American politics, there’s a scene where Pelosi expresses her frustration to Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, over Obama’s doomed courtship of Republican support for health care reform. “Does the president not understand the way this game works?” she asks. “He wants to get it done and be beloved, and you can’t have both — which does he want?”
The House speaker would rather get it done. There’s a pattern in Ball’s book. Again and again, Pelosi is dismissed,
- first as a dilettante housewife,
- then as a far-left San Francisco kook,
- finally as an establishment dinosaur — and
- throughout, as a woman.
She perseveres, driven by a steely faith in her own abilities. And more often than not, she is vindicated.
[ Read an excerpt from “Pelosi.” ]
The arc of Ball’s book is one of triumph. Pelosi was born to a prominent Democratic family in Baltimore, but the San Francisco network of influence that led her to Congress was one she built herself. When she entered the House of Representatives in 1987, women were a rarity in the chamber and completely absent from leadership. Sexual harassment and belittlement were constant. Twenty years later, she became the first-ever female House speaker. And in 2019, after regaining the top spot in the chamber, she came to preside over the most diverse Democratic caucus in history, one she did as much as anyone to elect.
For the first time in her public life, Pelosi became an icon, lauded for her unparalleled ability to get under Donald Trump’s skin. In one of her first meetings with the president when she was speaker, she helped goad him into taking public responsibility for an imminent government shutdown. Video of her strolling out of the White House in a chic Max Mara coat, putting on her tortoise shell sunglasses with a sly smile, appeared in countless memes. “It was as if America, after years of fixation on her weaknesses, had suddenly woken up to her strengths,” Ball writes.
For a liberal reading Ball’s book — and I suspect it will largely be liberals who will want to read a shining account of Pelosi’s career — a major question is whether the speaker’s strengths are equal to the severity of the dangers bearing down on our country. Even before coronavirus, many on the left worried that Pelosi wasn’t doing enough to constrain Trump, though she eventually came around to impeaching him. Once the pandemic hit, there was growing alarm among progressives that Democrats, in negotiating rescue packages, didn’t insist on the funding necessary to make the 2020 election secure, which could unfold in the shadow of a pandemic that makes in-person voting life-threatening. Congressional Democrats have leverage, Michael Grunwald wrote in Politico, but “they don’t seem inclined to use that leverage to take on Trump.”
In the past, Pelosi has always seemed to have a plan, even if those sniping from outside couldn’t see it. When it comes to Trump, does she still?
Reading “Pelosi,” it’s hard to know exactly how Pelosi sees the threat that Trump poses. Despite meticulous reporting and multiple interviews with the House speaker, Ball, Time magazine’s national political correspondent, doesn’t penetrate her steely exterior, as she herself acknowledges. Pelosi, Ball writes, “is a private person, and her inner life is fundamentally off limits.” To understand her, we can only look to her record.
Parts of that record should comfort those who fear that Pelosi is going soft. One of the book’s most telling anecdotes involves the late congressman Jack Murtha, a grizzled, conservative Democrat from Pennsylvania. An ex-Marine, Murtha initially supported the Iraq war, but in November 2005 he called a news conference to decry it and demand a six-month timetable for withdrawal. “The war in Iraq is not going as advertised,” he said. “Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk.” It was a turning point in the public’s understanding of the war; as Ball writes, “One analyst later dubbed it the ‘Murthquake,’ and antiwar activists credited Murtha with a seismic shift in the public debate.”
Yet as Murtha became a major face of opposition to the Iraq war, Pelosi remained silent, enraging antiwar activists who believed she’d left Murtha out on a limb. Amy Poehler, playing Pelosi on “Saturday Night Live,” mocked her timidity. “What are the Democrats proposing to counteract all this corruption?” asked Darrell Hammond, playing MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. “That’s easy, Chris. We’re going to do nothing,” Poehler said.
“Pelosi let them criticize her even though she knew the truth: She and Murtha had orchestrated the whole thing, and agreed that it had to look like a one-man crusade,” Ball writes. Both believed his withdrawal proposal would carry greater weight if he didn’t seem to be working with the caucus’s left flank.
Here we see one of the more striking things about Pelosi: She’s willing to advance her policy goals at the expense of her own image. Part of the reason Pelosi has been underestimated is simple sexism, but part is that she genuinely seems to care less about how she’s perceived than about what she can accomplish.
Ball describes the Murtha episode as “an illustration of Pelosi’s theory of public opinion.” Pelosi likes to repeat a quotation from Abraham Lincoln: “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” It was a line she invoked to explain her reluctance to impeach Trump, infuriating people — myself included — who believed she was following rather than leading. But Ball has made me think we were misunderstanding Pelosi; the speaker was emphasizing the importance of shaping public opinion before acting, not using public opinion as a reason not to act.
So as I read Ball’s book, I kept thinking that maybe Pelosi’s impeachment hesitation had been a put-on, a repeat of the Murtha play. But it appears it wasn’t — she really did hold out until her caucus gave her no choice. Likewise, her willingness to collaborate with Trump, even if it gives him legislative accomplishments to tout, is genuine. Pelosi, Ball writes, thought she could, “as she had with George W. Bush, work with him on goals they shared even as they fiercely opposed each other where they didn’t agree.” She never aspired to lead an all-out campaign against Trump’s authoritarianism.
Pelosi has always been a progressive; until the last few years, the right used her as the ultimate symbol of left-wing extremism. But her relentlessly pragmatic approach to politics is the polar opposite of, say, the Bernie Sanders approach. Pelosi doesn’t begin by asking what kind of world we want. She asks where the votes are. The speaker is, as she herself has said, a master legislator. “If this book has a thesis, it is that you needn’t agree with Nancy Pelosi’s politics to respect her accomplishments and appreciate her historic career,” Ball says. But you can do that and still wonder if, at this moment, her skill at making the system work is enough to check a man happy to destroy it.
In his letter to House leadership, the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, drew a line in the sand: The administration will not “participate in” the impeachment proceedings in any way. The odd language of “participate in” — presidential impeachment is not meant to be a collaboration between Congress and the president — obscures the central thrust of the letter: The White House is refusing to respond to any subpoenas or other demands for information from the House.
Of course, other administrations have fought with Congress over access to information, but those fights have centered around clearly articulated objections, supported by legal reasoning, to turning over specific documents or allowing specific officials to testify. The Trump administration’s wholesale refusal to treat congressional information demands as legitimate is so different in degree as to become different in kind.
It might seem like the White House has the House of Representatives over a barrel. If the president simply refuses to engage, what can the House do? How does a chamber of Congress go about wringing information from an unwilling executive branch?
Let’s get one thing out of the way at the outset: The answer is unlikely to be found in a courtroom. That’s not to say that the House probably wouldn’t win on the merits. Most of the administration’s arguments are risible, and even many Republican judges will have trouble swallowing them. Indeed, when the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations raised significantly more plausible objections to congressional subpoenas, the courts sided with the House, ordering the executive to turn over the vast majority of the subpoenaed material.
But those court battles took years. Courts could expedite proceedings to an extent, but thus far they have shown themselves in no hurry to render final judgments in these disputes. And a court “victory” coming in 2021 or 2022 is no victory at all for the House — even assuming that the Trump administration would comply with a court order when it refuses to comply with a congressional one.
So what should the House do instead? Let me suggest two ways that it can play some constitutional hardball of its own, matching the White House’s aggressive tactics.
Refusal to comply with a duly authorized subpoena from Congress constitutes contempt of Congress. Contempt of Congress is a crime, and there is a mechanism for referring such cases to federal prosecutors. The problem, of course, is that federal prosecutors answer to the attorney general and, through him, to the White House, and they refuse to prosecute contempts committed by executive officials. In recent decades, congressional houses have sought a court order requiring executive officials to comply with their subpoenas, but that has all the problems described above.
The House should instead put back on the table the option of using its sergeant-at-arms to arrest contemnors — as the person in violation of the order is called — especially when an individual, like Rudy Giuliani, is not an executive branch official. Neither house of Congress has arrested anyone since 1935, but it was not uncommon before that point (and was blessed by the Supreme Court in 1927). Indeed, on at least two occasions, the second in 1916, a house of Congress had its sergeant arrest an executive branch official. (In that case, the Supreme Court eventually ruled against the House, not because it did not have the power to arrest for contempt, but rather because the offense — writing a nasty public letter to a House subcommittee — could not properly be understood as contempt of Congress.)
Facilities in the Capitol or one of the House office buildings can be made into a makeshift holding cell if necessary. Of course, arrestees will ask the courts to set them free, but the case should be relatively open-and-shut against them: They will have committed a contempt in refusing to turn over subpoenaed materials, and the House has the power to hold contemnors. Moreover, time would work in the House’s favor here: The unpleasantness of being in custody while the issue was being litigated might make some contemnors decide to cooperate.
The House arresting someone would be explosive and clearly should not be undertaken lightly. But the very explosiveness of it would be a way for the House to signal the seriousness of White House obstructionism to the public. Moreover, having arrest as an option of last resort might also make less extreme options more palatable.
One of those less extreme options would be using the power of the purse. The government is currently funded through Nov. 21. There is nothing stopping the House from putting a provision in the next funding bill that zeros out funding for the White House Counsel’s Office. House leadership could announce that, so long as the counsel’s office is producing bad legal argumentation designed for no purpose other than protecting the president from constitutional checks, the American people should not have to pay for it.
Of course, the Senate could try to strip that rider, or President Trump could veto the bill, but if the House held firm, the administration’s choice would be to mollify the House by turning over subpoenaed information, accept the defunding of the counsel’s office, or accept the partial government shutdown that would come with failure to pass the appropriations bill.
In the end, whether the House wins that fight, like whether it wins a fight over arresting a contemnor, would be a function of which side best convinces the public. But President Trump is deeply unpopular, and the public supports impeachment. If necessary, the House should be willing to have these fights.
As a Democratic Senate aide for the past seven years, I had a front-row seat to an impressive show of obstruction. Republicans, under then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, decided they would oppose President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at every turn to limit their power. And it worked: They extorted concessions from Democrats with threats of
- fiscal cliffs and
- financial chaos.
I know firsthand that Democrats’ passion for responsible governance can be exploited by Republicans who are willing to blow past all norms and standards.
Now we have a president who exemplifies that willingness in the extreme. Partly, this explains why he faces more questions about his legitimacy than any president in recent history and why he drew three times as many protesters as inauguration attendees last weekend. But in something of a mismatch, Republicans’ unified control of government means that the most effective tool for popular resistance lies in the Senate — the elite, byzantine institution envisioned by the founders as the saucer that cools the teacup of popular opinion.
Senate Democrats have a powerful tool at their disposal, if they choose to use it, for resisting a president who has no mandate and cannot claim to embody the popular will. That tool lies in the simple but fitting act of withholding consent. An organized effort to do so on the Senate floor can bring the body to its knees and block or severely slow down the agenda of a president who does not represent the majority of Americans.
The procedure for withholding consent is straightforward, but deploying it is tricky. For the Senate to move in a timely fashion on any order of business, it must obtain unanimous support from its members. But if a single senator objects to a consent agreement, McConnell, now majority leader, will be forced to resort to time-consuming procedural steps through the cloture process, which takes four days to confirm nominees and seven days to advance any piece of legislation — and that’s without amendment votes, each of which can be subjected to a several-day cloture process as well.
McConnell can ask for consent at any time, and if no objection is heard, the Senate assumes that consent is granted. So the 48 senators in the Democratic caucus must work together — along with any Republicans who aren’t afraid of being targeted by an angry tweet — to ensure that there is always a senator on the floor to withhold consent.
Because every Senate action requires the unanimous consent of members from all parties, everything it does is a leverage point for Democrats. For instance, each of the 1,000-plus nominees requiring Senate confirmation — including President Trump’s Cabinet choices — can be delayed for four days each.
While the tactic works well, as we’ve seen for the past eight years, there remains the question of strategy. Should Democrats be pragmatic and let Trump have his nominees on a reasonable timetable, so as not to appear obstructionist? So far, this has been their approach to some of Trump’s Cabinet picks.
But it’s also fair to say that, by nominating a poorly qualified and ethically challenged Cabinet, Trump forfeited his right to a speedy confirmation process, and Democrats should therefore slow it down to facilitate the adequate vetting that Trump and Senate Republicans are determined to avoid by rushing the process before all the questionnaires and filings are submitted. Four days of scrutiny on the Senate floor per nominee, even after the committee hearings, is a reasonable standard for fulfilling the Senate’s constitutional responsibility of advice and consent.
Democrats can also withhold their consent from every piece of objectionable legislation McConnell tries to advance. With 48 senators in their caucus, they have the votes to block most bills. But even when Democrats don’t have the votes, they can force McConnell to spend time jumping through procedural hoops. This is the insight McConnell deployed against Reid to manufacture the appearance of gridlock, forcing him to use the cloture process more than 600 times.
Finally, Democrats can withhold their consent from Trump until they feel confident that foreign governments are not interfering in our elections. Credible reports hold that U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating whether Trump’s campaign cooperated with the Russian government on Vladimir Putin’s personally directed meddling. Withholding consent from Trump’s agenda until an independent, bipartisan probe provides answers is not just reasonable; it’s responsible. If Democrats withhold consent from everything the Senate does until such a process is established, they can stall Trump’s agenda and confirmation of his nominees indefinitely. Sen. Richard Durbin has been a leader in demanding an independent investigation. But unless Democrats back their calls with the threat of action, McConnell will steamroll them and never look back.
Of course, it would be unwise to deploy this strategy blindly. The kind of universal obstruction pioneered by McConnell during Obama’s presidency is not in Democrats’ nature: They believe in the smooth functioning of government.
But Democrats’ concern with delivering results for their constituents is also part of who we are and something we should embrace. Even for innately cautious Democrats, some issues demand dramatic action. If Trump wants to put their concerns about his legitimacy to rest, he can reach out with consensus nominees and policies, and come clean about his ties to Russia and his tax returns (which may show whether he has compromising financial debts to Russian interests). Until then, Democrats can stand up for America by withholding their consent.
The raison d’être of Davos is intelligence gathering. Hedge funds go to chat up CEOs, CEOs go to chat up politicians, politicians go to chat up donors, and journalists go to chat up everyone.
This year, all that chatting is yielding distressingly little intelligence, and that helps to explain why the mood here, and indeed over the world economy, seems so dark.
Here are the questions people here most want answered: How will Brexit be resolved? No one knows, certainly not British parliamentarians or cabinet ministers. When will the federal government shutdown ends? Nobody knows. Will the U.S. and China reach a deal to avoid all-out trade war by March 2? Nobody knows. This isn’t because no one from the Trump administration is here; if they were, they wouldn’t know, either (or so the people here who have dealt with Trump have concluded).
In the economy uncertainty is, of course, a constant. Businesses, markets and investors are used to working with probabilities rather than certainties, whether it’s the outlook for profits or interest rates. But with today’s problems you can’t even assign probabilities. Since Mr. Trump himself does not seem to know what he wants out of the China trade talks, how can you judge the odds and provisions of a deal?
How do you assign a probability to Mr. Trump or Democrats breaking a promise to their bases, as would be necessary to end the partial federal shutdown? Shutdowns used to treated as localized natural disasters, Harvard economist Ken Rogoff noted on a panel moderated by Journal editor Matt Murray: painful for those involved but without national repercussions. This shutdown, he said, is like one local disaster after another, each worse than the one before. In such a situation, “We don’t know what happens.”
As for Brexit, French finance minister Bruno Le Maire, asked about reopening the European Union’s deal with Britain, shrugged: “It’s up to the British people and British politicians to decide what they want.”
“Nobody knows anything,” screenwriter William Goldman once said of making hit movies. Too bad he died last year; he could have taught Davos a thing or two.