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How Trump Can Compromise with the Democratic House

Irwin M. Stelzer

Midterm elections that result in divided control of government typically are followed by pledges of cooperation. Last Tuesday’s, which shifted control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats, was followed by just such a love-in. Mitch McConnell, leader of Senate Republicans, immediately met with Nancy Pelosi, likely to resume her job as speaker of the House, to explore areas in which they might cooperate. President Trump, in a long, rambling press conference—“a media melee” the Wall Street Journal called it—said, “I really believe that we have a chance to get along very well with the Democrats.”

That era of good feeling lasted until about noon (Eastern Time) the following day. In that same press conference Trump made clear that his pledge of cooperation is contingent upon Democrats’ refraining from investigating him and his administration. Which is precisely what they are planning to do beginning on January 3, when the new, 116th Congress convenes. One source tells me that the Democrats are preparing a blizzard of about 100 subpoenas. A small sample:

  • The Intelligence Committee wants documents, emails, and the like that relate to possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians and the firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions (a “Constitutional crisis” according to Chuck Schumer).
  • The chairman of the Ways and Means Committee has the power to get his hands on the president’s tax returns, and will be under pressure to use it.
  • The Oversight and Government Reform Committee wants to examine possible business conflicts of interest, including those allegedly arising when foreign diplomats check into the new Trump Hotel, which the president still owns.
  • The Financial Services Committee will be chaired by Maxine Waters, who has called for the impeachment of the president and for harassment of Trump officials if they dare to dine out, fuel their cars, or make any public appearances.

There’s more, lots more, but you get the idea.

Trump has it made it clear that if Democrats choose to make his life a misery with multiple investigations, he will retaliate. “I’m better at that game than they are.” Before this program of mutually-assured destruction is triggered, saner heads—there are such in Washington—might prevail. After all, it is possible that in 2020—the election is only 723 days from now—the voters might reward politicians who “get the people’s business done.”

One such bit of business is the shoring up of the nation’s infrastructure. The Democrats’ union allies are salivating at the prospect of passage of an infrastructure program for which they and Trump have been calling. The president wants to spend $1.5 trillion to fix bridges, airports, water pipes, extend rural broadband, and improve transportation facilities which he calls a disgrace (commuters in the New York-Washington corridor will agree).

Republicans are less enthusiastic than Democrats about an infrastructure package, especially in an economy short of labor and already growing fast enough to have brought the word “overheating” back into common usage. All Trump and House Democrats need to get the Senate to go along are a few Republicans voting with them. Trump says he “gets along well” with Pete DeFazio, the incoming Democratic chairman of the Infrastructure committee. A deal would bring joy to the wallets of heavy machinery, construction, and similar companies—not to mention the trade unions. And to the president, who sees a possible boost to the economy early in 2020.

Then there are drug prices, which both parties have promised to bring down, Trump to the average level of prices in other countries, Democrats by having the government intervene directly in the pricing process. A compromise might start with legislation to force pharmaceutical companies to include the price of their medications in television ads.

Taxes are another area in which compromise is possible. Richard Neal, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which deals with tax policy, has expressed a willingness to go along with Trump’s plan to reduce taxes on middle-income families by another 10 percent. But only if such a reduction is “revenue neutral”—offset by increases in other tax rates, most likely the rate of corporate taxation. Trump has indicated a willingness to compromise, but like all other olive branches this one comes with more than a few thorns—only if Democrats legislate rather than investigate, and Neal keeps hands off his tax returns, which Trump alleges are so complicated that only his experts can understand them.

Anyone who thinks the committee chairman might meet that condition should look at a full-page ad in the New York Times. In bold white-on black, it reads, “Democrats, Congratulations on winning the House! You said you’d get Trump’s tax returns. Now is the time.” Signed by over 60 organizations—non-profits, the government-employee’s’ union, think tanks and assorted groups. That’s a lot of political pressure on the committee chairman.

Trump is under a different pressure. He must keep the economy in high gear if he is to win in 2020. The financial markets are already expecting the rate of increase in corporate profits, more than 20 percent in each of the past three quarters, to drop to 6 percent in the first two quarters of 2019. An increase in the corporate tax rate might cause a price-shattering wave of selling. That would be the first time since 1946 that the S&P 500 has not risen a year after a midterm election, a distinction Trump does not seek.

Barack Obama reminded Republicans seeking changes in his stimulus packages, “Elections have consequences,” adding with characteristic grace, “And at the end of the day, I won.” Meanwhile, a new kind of House of Representatives, with more than 100 women, 86 of them Democrats, two of them Muslims, and one a Latina, will be sworn in. Like Obama, they demand consequences of their victory. They are not eager to compromise with a man they believe to be a vulgar misogynist. The nation’s negotiator-in-chief has his work cut out for him.