What’s the shocking secret sauce to progress on the Hill? Impeachment

Cameras focused on Ukraine allowed work to get done on trade, spending and defense

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., after a meeting to announce a spending deal on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., after a meeting to announce a spending deal on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 16, 2019 at 5:30am

OPINION — If your only source of information about Capitol Hill last week was cable news, I forgive you for believing that all non-impeachment work in Congress had screeched to a halt, that Republicans and Democrats were at each other’s throats, and that Congress itself had reached an ugly new low.

But if you had looked away from your screen and walked the halls of the House and Senate instead, you would have seen the rest of the story playing out away from television cameras and media scrums — member meetings, committee hearings and real, bipartisan agreements on long-stalled issues being struck at the very moment that impeachment seemed to be swallowing Washington whole.

It’s not what most people expected to happen when the House began the work of removing the president from office. And it’s certainly not what Trump had in mind in his State of the Union speech in January when he warned the House chamber not to come for him if they wanted to get anything done this year.

“If there is going to peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” he said. “It just doesn’t work that way!”

But it turns out, it does work that way. In fact, staffers I spoke with last week said the entire impeachment spectacle has had the strange side effect of allowing, and even incentivizing, the kinds of compromises that members might otherwise never have been able to strike.

One look at last week’s calendar tells the story. Just hours before the House Judiciary Committee began to mark up its articles of impeachment, Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, the second-ranking Democrat on the committee, was on the House floor watching her Farm Workforce Modernization Act pass with all Democrats and 34 Republicans voting yes.

Among the ayes for the bill, which would give legal status and a path to citizenship for much-needed farmworkers, were Reps. Devin Nunes  of California and Elise Stefanik of New York, two of the Republican superstars from the House Intelligence Committee hearings defending the president.

Also on Wednesday, the House passed the conference report for the National Defense Authorization Act, with a 12-week paid family leave benefit for federal workers that is the first expansion of federal leave policies since the Family and Medical Leave Act passed in 1993. 

Earlier in the week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a deal with the White House on the USMCA, a major update of the North America Free Trade Agreement that the president wanted, with changes Pelosi had been pushing all year. And on Tuesday, the House passed the Tribal Coastal Resiliency Act to help Native American tribes deal with climate change. It had the support of 34 Republicans, including such Trump allies as Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Lee Zeldin of New York .

But what about the government shutdown that always seems to be an end-of-year lump of coal for both chambers? For the first time in nearly a decade, it’s completely off the table. While the Judiciary Committee was still in its marathon markup, House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey of New York and Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby of Alabama were huddling with Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s Treasury secretary. They reached an agreement “in principle” to pass all 12 outstanding appropriations bills next week, a package that could get a House vote as early as Tuesday.

There’s no doubt that a combination of the end-of-the year schedule and jet fumes is greasing the wheels on some of these deals. But it’s also impossible to miss a palpable fight fatigue blanketing the Capitol. CQ Roll Call’s Niels Lesniewski had a terrific piece last week quoting Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who predicted the appetite for bipartisanship will only grow after the likely Senate impeachment trial in January.

“I think that members of Congress, like the American people, are maybe coming to the conclusion that there’s more to life than judges and impeachment,” Alexander said.

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Not only do members want to get more done than impeachment, they have to. There’s an imperative for anyone up for reelection to have something, anything, to bring home to voters before the election year that starts in January. Many of them will.

The final factor that seems to be at play, thanks to impeachment, is the sheer crush of news that the historic moment has created. Although members aren’t getting much credit for passing major legislation, they have helpfully been able to work without the hype of media coverage that nearly always engulfs controversial bills.

There is only so much outrage that Sean Hannity can pack into 48 minutes of airtime on Fox News, and frankly, only so many issues even members themselves can follow closely enough to act on.

During the Judiciary markup on Thursday, Republican Colorado Rep. Ken Buck took some of his time to talk about the NDAA and the fact that, “Somehow, someone slipped in a provision that every federal employee will be given three months of paid family leave.” Buck lamented that Americans outside the federal workforce have no such benefits. 

“Congress is an embarrassment!” he said. Who wants to tell Mr. Buck it was Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, who persuaded Democrats, Republicans and Trump himself to put paid family leave in the bill?

“Wow!” Trump tweeted Wednesday after the House passed the NDAA. “All of our priorities have made it into the final NDAA: Pay Raise for our Troops, Rebuilding our Military, Paid Parental Leave, Border Security, and Space Force! Congress — don’t delay this anymore! I will sign this historic defense legislation immediately!”

The full House is expected to impeach President Donald John Trump this week. On the day before, they’ll likely pass the full-years appropriations package. On the day after, a bipartisan majority will approve the president’s USMCA and members will race to the exits for cars waiting to whisk them home and away from the Capitol. Incredibly, both sides will have gotten what they want.

Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.