Democrats want to investigate the Trump Hotel deal and President Donald Trump’s taxes. They want to haul up conflicted Cabinet officials and dig into controversial changes to the census and food stamps. They want to put Education Secretary Betsy DeVos under oath and investigate child detentions at the border.
The threat of subpoenas, investigations and oversight hearings will dominate the new House Democratic majority agenda, targeting the White House’s most controversial policies and personnel, spanning immigration, the environment, trade and of course, the biggest question of them all: Russian collusion.
Story Continued Below
“Over the last two years President Trump set the tone from the top in his administration that behaving ethically and complying with the law is optional,” House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings said. “We’re better than that.”
But for House Democrats in control for the first time in nearly a decade, it’s also a role full of pitfalls. Trump has already tried to brand the prospect of congressional oversight as nothing more than “harassment,” and Democrats will also have to show they can legislate, govern and investigate all at the same time in the House.
“I joked for a while — but it’s not funny anymore — I said we’re going to have to build an air traffic control tower to keep track of all the subpoenas flying from here to the White House,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), chairman of the House Budget Committee. “So yeah, it could be brutal.”
Two days into the new Congress, the atmosphere is already poisoned, between Democrats going off message calling for impeachment and Trump threatening to shut down the government for months.
But over the coming year, there will be more action in House committees than there was in the first two years of the Trump administration.
Here are some of the biggest targets for House Democrats so far:
Mueller and the Justice Department
Democrats stress they’ll need to tread carefully when it comes to Russia-related investigations, for fear of interfering with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing probe. But that’s not likely to stop the party from taking a deep look at the Justice Department and acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker — who assumed oversight of Mueller’s activities after Trump forced out Jeff Sessions.
Critics have warned that Whitaker’s installation could be aimed at interfering with the investigation, with Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) questioning at one point whether his appointment without Senate confirmation was even legal.
Scandal-ridden Cabinet officials
Cummings has singled out two former Trump officials who will be in his crosshairs early on: Former Interior Department head Ryan Zinke and former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
“We’re seeing gross abuses from agency heads,” Cummings said about them soon after Democrats took charge of the chamber.
Zinke is already under pressure from the Interior Department’s internal watchdog, and soon he’ll be hauled up to the Hill to account for his role in a range of ethical quandaries. Among them: A land deal with the then-chairman of Halliburton and whether Zinke’s decision to block a tribal casino despite recommendations from career staff was inappropriately driven by political considerations — issues that were both first reported by POLITICO.
The DOJ is reportedly also looking into allegations that Zinke committed a crime by lying to IG investigators, which Zinke denies. One of his first stops could be in front of the House Natural Resources Committee, where Chairman Raúl Grijalva says he wants a hearing even after Zinke resigned from the Trump administration.
The EPA, meanwhile, may face subpoenas for Pruitt-related records it failed to produce for the previous investigation run by then-Chairman Trey Gowdy. The agency’s inspector general is also still looking into a range of Pruitt’s activities, including his travel, use of special hiring authorities to bring political officials on board and granting of raises to close aides.
But the first Cabinet official Cummings wants to talk to is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. His committee will press Ross over allegations he misled Congress about a decision to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census. Ross also has been dogged by ethical questions and reporting that exposed numerous conflicts of interests involving his personal financial interests.
And another Cabinet member, Betsy DeVos
As many as five House committees could take on DeVos over her rollback of for-profit college regulations, stalled student loan forgiveness processing and a rewrite of campus sexual assault policies.
Veterans Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) is expected to scrutinize for-profit college issues, where DeVos has scaled back Obama-era rules aimed at curbing abuses for institutions that enroll tens of thousands of veterans each year.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing education funding, is also a top critic of the Education Department over DeVos’ record on student debt issues.
Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has accused DeVos of a “full-on attack on civil rights protections for students — particularly students of color, students with disabilities, transgender students, and survivors of sexual assault.” She’s also criticized the Trump administration’s moves to ease regulations on for-profit colleges, while Cummings is similarly looking at the collapse of a for-profit college chain.
And this past year, he and Education and Labor Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) expressed concern over DeVos’ treatment of the union that represents her agency’s employees, and pledged to scrutinize civil rights concerns tied to K-12 state plans.
Democrats are eager to get their hands on Trump’s tax returns, a task that would fall to the House Ways and Means Committee. But newly minted Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) doesn’t plan to rush into anything. Neal wants to first build a public case that presidents should voluntarily release their returns, his spokesperson told POLITICO.
That approach won’t sit well with other Democratic lawmakers and liberal activists, who have been clamoring to get a look at Trump’s tax filings since the 2016 presidential campaign. Just two days after Democrats won the House in the midterm elections, more than 50 groups, including unions and government transparency advocates, signed on to a full-page ad in The New York Times urging Democrats to make Trumps tax returns a Day 1 priority.
Whenever Democrats make their move, it is likely to spark a legal battle with Trump, who has zealously guarded the secrecy of his tax practices.
Neal is also planning to use his oversight power to delve into the massive tax overhaul Republicans pushed through Congress in 2017, especially provisions that Democrats believe advantaged the wealthy and punished blue state taxpayers.
The ‘zero tolerance’ border policy
The deaths of two migrant children held in detention — Jakelin Call, 7, and Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 8 — has only heightened Democrats’ urgency to investigate Trump’s immigration decisions.
Three committees have ordered U.S. Customs and Border Protection to preserve evidence related to their deaths, and yet another is prepping a hearing later this month on the family separations that resulted from the Department of Justice’s “zero tolerance” policy. That Energy and Commerce Committee session could renew the focus on the role the administration’s health department is playing in housing and caring for migrants detained at the border.
DeLauro and Scott will play big roles in this space too, with DeLauro focusing on wage theft and the Labor Department’s PAID program — a safe harbor created by the Trump administration for companies that may owe workers back pay. Scott told POLITICO in November he may hold hearings to investigate the limiting of businesses classified as “joint employers,” jointly liable for labor violations committed by their franchisees or contractors.
Health care is likely to be an overriding focus for Democrats early on, though, after rising voter support for Obamacare helped catapult them into the House majority.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has vowed to make protecting Americans with pre-existing conditions a top priority — a mission that gained even more prominence after a Texas court sided with a GOP-led lawsuit in ruling the entire health law should be thrown out.
Democrats are planning to dig into the Justice Department’s unusual decision not to defend Obamacare against that suit, as well as press Trump health officials over their roles in the legal battle and various other policy actions they suspect have depressed Obamacare enrollment and threatened the law’s stability.
depressed Obamacare enrollment and the *threatened the* law’s stability
Controversial regulatory overhauls
Health care-focused Democrats are targeting Trump’s regulatory reforms, too, planning to go after policies freeing red states to tie employment to health benefits for the poor and creating skimpy alternatives to Obamacare coverage. Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone is likely to lead the inquiry into those moves, arguing that they’re motivated by a desire to undermine the 2010 health law.
House Agriculture Democrats led by Collin Peterson could review a proposed rule that would more strictly enforce existing work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. The proposal, which Democrats fiercely oppose, would drop more than 750,000 people from the program over three years.
Rules Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a leading food stamps defender on Capitol Hill, also promised he’d give the administration “one hell of a fight” if it proceeds with the proposed rule.
Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson told POLITICO he wants to hear directly from Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen about her agency’s operations, and who exactly is making policy decisions. He’s also identified staffing issues at FEMA, which is under scrutiny over its response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
The Pentagon is in for some tough questions as well about its budget and big-ticket programs from Rep. Adam Smith — a longtime critic of Trump’s military buildup. Democrats have blasted the lengthy list of far-flung U.S. military engagements aimed at fighting global terrorism, including U.S. involvement in Africa and Yemen.
“We need an overall strategy that better reflects the budget and not just this notion [that] somehow the more money we spend at the Pentagon, the safer we are,” Smith told POLITICO.
His Armed Services Committee may also probe Trump’s decision to deploy active-duty troops to the U.S.-Mexico border and ban on transgender individuals from serving in the military. Recent administration proposals to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria and shrink the military footprint in Afghanistan — and their rationale — could also come under close scrutiny from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, meanwhile, has caught Democrats’ eye with his efforts to move two USDA agencies out of the Washington area.
Friendly fire over tariffs
Trump’s trade agenda could face pushback in both congressional chambers and on both sides of the aisle. Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has promised to revive legislation that would challenge Trump’s authority to impose tariffs for national security reasons.
“I strongly disagree with the notion that imports of steel and aluminum, automobiles and auto parts somehow could pose a national security threat,” he said in December.
A Democrat-controlled House will also likely play a major rule in scrutinizing the administration’s new North American trade deal. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has begun quiet negotiations to win support from key Democrats in both the House and Senate, who are calling for the NAFTA replacement’s provisions on labor enforcement to be strengthened.
Adam Behsudi, Helena Bottemiller Evich, Toby Eckert, Caitlin Emma, Alex Guillén, Kimberly Hefling, Nick Juliano, Ian Kullgren, John Lauinger, Connor O’Brien, Rebecca Rainey, Jennifer Scholtes, Michael Stratford and Zachary Warmbrodt contributed to this report.