Impeachment should not become the end of legislation in Congress

Impeachment should not become the end of legislation in Congress
© Greg Nash

Congress has had a busy year, with the exception of actual legislating, of course. Investigations, public hearings, and judicial confirmations have consumed months of committee time and staff resources. Although the public has historically been cynical toward the job performance of the legislative branch, recent polling is uniquely dire. Nearly 70 percent of voters believe Congress is unlikely to address our important challenges.

With impeachment looming, voters are rightly worried about upcoming legislative prospects. Impeachment politics tends to undermine bipartisan goodwill often needed for legislative success. Rather than drafting bills, several House committees are hard at work fulfilling another important duty of collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses for the inquiry. If the president is impeached, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already acknowledged that his chamber will have to hold a lengthy trial.

The White House itself has also put up a roadblock to legislative progress by hinting that, as long as the impeachment inquiry continues, it has little interest in signing any significant legislation. In short, all signs predict a perfect storm for infinitesimal legislative progress until the 2020 election. But the impeachment inquiry does not have to stall legislative progress.

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The Clinton impeachment saga offers a useful comparison. It took place between October 1998 and February 1999. During those four months, nearly 150 bills became law, including noteworthy items such as the reauthorization and update of the Head Start program. During the same window of time in both the previous year and the year after impeachment, just over 100 bills became law. Congress appeared to actually be more productive during impeachment than it was otherwise. Unfortunately, this legislative success seems a relic of another era. The first 10 months of this Congress has seen less than 70 bills become law as tensions continue.

The lack of legislative success today is frustrating to both Republican and Democratic voters, who see little more than talking points coming out of Washington. With the presidential primary now fully underway, voters are looking to the campaign trail for legislative solutions. The catch is that many reforms are being offered by candidates who currently serve in the chambers of Congress where real change could be made now, and yet legislative progress there has all but come to a grinding halt. With both impeachment and campaign politics at hand, even some solid bipartisan proposals such as measures to solve surprise medical billing, are likely to get tossed aside to prevent legislative wins for either side of the aisle.

Impeachment is not only likely to stop legislation, but it could also cause a decrease in judicial confirmations. Filling judicial vacancies has been a hallmark of the White House and Republican Senate agenda, but any trial that takes place will require members and their staffs to devote significant time to it. A trial will likely spur more partisan bickering, thus undermining the cooperation needed to advance even lower level district judges. The past once again provides a lesson. During the entirety of the Clinton impeachment, the Republican Senate confirmed zero federal judges.

With little legislative success to show leading up to the 2020 election, members should be nervous. Just one year from now, the entire House and a third of the Senate will be on the ballot along with the embattled president. Republicans in Congress may be left asking why they were unable to help enact the White House agenda, while Democrats who ran on checking the worst impulses of the president and passing substantial reform will be pressed on why they struggled to deliver either promise.

For now, impeachment seems to be the only item on the agenda for Capitol Hill. But productivity should not cease when inquiries and trials begin. The Constitution allows Congress to tackle both, and the public expects no less. While impeachment is favorable among many voters, so too is key legislative action. Whether it be passing immigration reform, improving health care, or confirming federal judges, voters are ready for Congress to work and will not accept impeachment as a policy tradeoff.

Aubrey Neal is federal affairs manager at the R Street Institute. Anthony Marcum is a fellow with the governance project at the R Street Institute.