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Is Nancy Pelosi worth the trouble?Kathryn L. Pearson, University of Minnesota
Democrats in Congress are struggling to keep up a unified front.
As the minority party, Democrats have spent the past six months standing by, mostly powerless, as President Donald Trump has made haphazard progress toward dismantling many of former President Barack Obama’s key accomplishments.
Last week the party suffered another blow: a bitter defeat in a special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District. That made four special elections – out of four – they have lost since Election Day in November.
These losses all occurred in Republican strongholds, but Democrats were hoping for victories that would signal dissatisfaction with Trump’s presidency and bolster their momentum. Helping the GOP win in these hard-fought elections were ads attacking House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s “San Francisco liberalism.” Looking ahead to the 2018 midterms, Pelosi’s long tenure as leader also poses a challenge to Democrats trying to make the case that they are the party of change.
As a political scientist who focuses on gender and party discipline in the House of Representatives, I have studied Pelosi’s long leadership. I think it is especially interesting to compare Speaker Paul Ryan’s recent struggle to persuade enough Republicans to support the American Health Care Act with Pelosi’s significant role in building a coalition to pass the Affordable Care Act.
In the past week, some frustrated House Democrats have suggested that Pelosi step down, calling into question her leadership, the party’s agenda and even the Democratic brand.
A defiant Pelosi reacted by calling a press conference and declaring: “I think I’m worth it.”
Is she? Let’s look at her record.
Rising to power
Pelosi’s rise to power and leadership are characterized by her intense partisanship, fundraising prowess and intraparty coalition-building.
Elected to the House in 1987, she won her first leadership race as party whip in October of 2001, defeating Steny Hoyer of Maryland by a vote of 118-95. As minority leader, Pelosi established a reputation as a pragmatist who enforced party discipline.
Fast forward to the 2006 elections, with Democrats gaining 30 seats and majority party control. Taking the gavel at the start of the 110th Congress, Pelosi became the first female speaker of the House, presiding over an 84 percent male chamber.
Serving as speaker from 2007 to 2010, Pelosi benefited from the centralization of party leaders’ power that occurred during the previous 12 years of GOP control of the House.
As she stepped into the leadership role in 2007, Pelosi had more tools and prerogatives than her Democratic predecessors, Tip O'Neill, Jim Wright and Tom Foley. That’s because under Republican speakers Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert, the shift of power away from committee chairs to party leaders – a change that had been taking place since the Democratic reforms of the 1970s – picked up speed. For example, Republicans instituted six-year term limits on committee chairs in 1995 that remain in effect. Selected by a party leadership-led steering committee, Republican committee chairs are not always the most senior majority member on the committee. They are typically members who display their party loyalty with their voting records and fundraising.
As speaker, Pelosi maximized her influence, setting the legislative agenda, pursuing partisan policy initiatives and fundraising for her colleagues. As I argue in my book, Democratic committee chairs, grateful to return to the majority, were willing to cede power to party leaders.
For the most part, Pelosi worked hard to build consensus within her party and shut Republicans out of the process. She frequently met with freshmen and more moderate and conservative Democrats to find common ground on the party agenda. Under her leadership, House Democrats voted on average with the majority of their caucus 92 percent of the time in 2007 and 2008, setting a record for party cohesion.
A different challenge
When Obama was first elected in 2008, the Democrats gained unified party control of the White House and both chambers of congress. Pelosi had a new challenge: building coalitions to pass the president’s ambitious agenda items – like health care and financial regulatory reform – rather than the easier job of simply attacking a Republican president’s proposals.
She brought Democrats together to start the process in the House before Obama became deeply involved. Three House committees marked up the bill which Pelosi then assembled. When key House Democrats threatened to withdraw their support over disagreements related to abortion funding, Pelosi appeased them and built consensus to attract enough votes to pass the bill. And when it seemed that the House and Senate would not be able to reconcile their versions after Senate Democrats lost their 60 vote filibuster-proof majority with the election of Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Pelosi’s leadership was critical in crafting and executing a complicated legislative strategy that resulted in the bill that Obama ultimately signed into law.
House Democrats were largely unified on other votes as well, with the average member voting with the majority 91 percent of the time in 2009 and 89 percent in 2010.
Back in the minority, Pelosi was reelected as Democratic leader in 2011, defeating North Carolina centrist Heath Shuler by a caucus vote of 150-43. In a sign of dissatisfaction, 19 Democrats did not support her in the vote on the House floor.
The Trump era
On Jan. 3 of this year, all but four Democrats voted to reelect Pelosi as their leader for the eighth time. However, this show of Democratic unity on the House floor masked the uneasiness on display during the party’s internal contest between Pelosi and relatively unknown seven-term Democrat Tim Ryan of Ohio in late November. Pelosi prevailed, 134 to 63 – hardly a ringing endorsement.
As the 115th Congress got underway, Pelosi pledged to seek common ground with President-elect Trump on job creation, trade and support for working families. She also warned that “If there is an attempt to destroy the guarantee of Medicare, harm Medicaid, Social Security, or the Affordable Care Act, Democrats will stand our ground.”
Not surprisingly, with deep policy divides and intense competition between the parties, finding that common ground has been elusive. Without the votes to advance the Democrats’ agenda in the House, criticizing Republican policies is the best way for Pelosi to get attention.
In the upcoming midterms, Democrats will need a united front and they’ll need money to win seats in the House. They are unlikely to forget how Pelosi can draw upon her vast connections to raise record amounts. According to The New York Times, Pelosi has raised nearly US$568 million for her party since entering the House Democratic leadership in 2002. Just in the 2016 election cycle, she raised over $141 million.
Viewed through that lens, I would argue she may be ‘worth it.’
Yet House Democrats in swing districts may decide that it is too challenging to make the case for change with Pelosi as their leader. If Pelosi’s vote-counting history is a guide, she will know if and when that time has come.
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4 ways the Supreme Court could rule on Trump's travel banAnthony Johnstone, The University of Montana
The Supreme Court has decided to hear two legal challenges to President Donald Trump’s revised “travel ban.”
Among other things, the executive order Trump signed in March temporarily bars entry of nationals from six predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
In cases arising out of Maryland and Hawaii, lower courts had blocked applying the ban to all nationals from the six countries. Now, under the Supreme Court’s June 26 order, family members, students, employees and others with “a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States” will be allowed entry. At the same time, the Supreme Court will allow part of the travel ban to go back into effect for “foreign nationals abroad who have no connection to the United States at all.”
The Supreme Court will hear the combined cases in October after the justices return from summer recess. Its decision will be its first major encounter with a president who criticizes the courts as political. As a professor of constitutional law who studies law and politics, I see four ways forward for the Supreme Court in these cases.
Two ways to strike down the travel ban
1. The Maryland case was brought by U.S. residents who are separated from family members in the six named countries. It challenges the travel ban as an unconstitutional “establishment of religion” under the First Amendment. In earlier cases, the Supreme Court has said the Establishment Clause “forbids an official purpose to disapprove of a particular religion…” Because the travel ban singles out six countries with overwhelmingly Muslim populations, the lower court held a “reasonable observer would likely conclude” the travel ban is intended to discriminate against Muslims. In doing so, it relied on Trump’s controversial statement during the campaign calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” A decision on these grounds would require the Supreme Court to question the president’s motives – a highly unusual move.
2. The second case was brought by the state of Hawaii on behalf of its state university and a United States citizen whose Syrian mother-in-law seeks to immigrate. They claim the travel ban exceeds the president’s authority under immigration law. The travel ban relies on a 1952 law authorizing the president to “suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens” if he finds their entry “would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.” Congress reformed immigration law in 1965 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of nationality in issuing visas, the documents allowing immigrants to enter the United States. The court held that the president did not show entry of people from the six countries “would be detrimental” under the 1952 law, and that the travel ban discriminated on the basis of nationality under the 1965 law. A decision on these grounds would leave the issue with Congress, which could then keep or change the law.
Two ways to leave the law as it stands
3. Traditionally, the Supreme Court has been reluctant to second-guess the president’s policy judgments involving national security. In earlier challenges, the Supreme Court has upheld the exclusion of individual foreign nationals, even where constitutional rights may be at stake, if the government offers a “legitimate and bona fide reason.” Under this broad language, vague concerns about terrorism could be a good enough reason. As the Supreme Court recognized in granting review of the cases, “preserving national security is an urgent objective of the highest order.” In a separate opinion accompanying the order, three of the Supreme Court’s conservative justices, including Trump appointee Justice Neil Gorsuch, suggested this factor should weigh heavily in favor of upholding the travel ban in its entirety.
4. The court’s order holds another clue about how it might decide the case. It asks the parties to brief the court on whether the challenges to the travel ban “became moot” or, or legally meaningless, when the 90-day travel ban ended, according to its original terms. That period is intended to give the government time to review its “vetting” of foreign nationals seeking entry into the United States. Once the government completes its review, the travel ban loses its original justification. The president recently moved back the 90-day clock to start when it takes limited effect after the Supreme Court’s order. Yet mootness remains a possibility. Even the extended timeline will end before the case is argued in October. If the case is moot, the Supreme Court would dismiss it without reaching a decision on the legality of the ban.
Win, lose or draw
It can be tempting to score these outcomes as either “wins” or “losses” for President Trump. However, the back-and-forth between the courts and the administration has already led to a significantly narrower revised ban after earlier cases struck down the original ban issued in January. Many people who would have been subject to both the original and revised travel bans now can enter the United States legally thanks to these cases.
This sometimes tense dialogue between the president and the courts is typical to the resolution of high-stakes legal controversies. For example, the government argued that the courts had no role to play in determining the rights of detainees at Guantanamo Bay after 9/11. Yet, the Supreme Court issued several decisions that prompted the president and Congress to revisit and temper detainee policies. In the last of these cases, Justice Anthony Kennedy on behalf of the Supreme Court encouraged the president and Congress to “engage in a genuine debate about how best to preserve constitutional values while protecting the Nation from terrorism.”
Whatever the fate of the travel ban, it is unlikely the Supreme Court will have the last word when it issues a decision this fall. Striking down the travel ban as unconstitutional would still allow for new restrictions on immigration. Upholding the travel ban would still allow for narrower challenges to the policy and its implementation. Holding the travel ban illegal under immigration law, or finding the case moot, would throw the issue back to the president and Congress. In each of these outcomes, look for the Supreme Court again to encourage “a genuine debate.”