Congress Got Nothing Done During the Clinton Impeachment. Trump's Might Be Worse.

History shows that impeachment is a recipe for inaction. And this time there's a special ingredient: Trump.
October 3, 2019, 1:34pm
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WASHINGTON — When Nancy Pelosi stepped to the podium for her weekly press conference yesterday, she knew the throng of reporters wanted to talk about one thing: impeachment. She practically begged them to ask about anything else.

“Does anybody in this room care about the cost of prescription drugs?” she asked, half-mockingly. “Does anyone care about the USMCA?”

They obliged her half-heartedly—and briefly. But with every passing day, and every passing Tweet, it becomes more obvious that impeachment will dash any hope of Congress passing bipartisan legislation before the 2020 election.

In a way, that’s nothing new: President Bill Clinton and Congress didn’t accomplish much during their impeachment year either—a slice of history that illustrates just how hard it will be for these lawmakers to get anything done.

And it may be even harder for this Congress. During this presidency.

The Clinton Way

Before the impeachment probe, Clinton and the GOP-controlled Congress had managed to hammer out a series of major bipartisan agreements during their uneasy shared control of Washington. That included the Balanced Budget Act, which trimmed government spending while creating the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, the largest expansion of health care insurance since the creation of Medicaid.

But that cooperation ground to a halt when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. From January 1998, when the Lewinsky investigation began, through the end of the Senate impeachment trial in February 1999, Washington stood transfixed—and failed to do much else.

“It’s fair to say if you look at the period, particularly in 1998, Congress was not in a great mood to be passing big legislation,” said John Podesta, who was Clinton’s White House deputy chief of staff for operations and later his chief of staff during the impeachment process.

The White House tried to keep some focus on policy. Podesta set up a bifurcated system to keep impeachment from bleeding into other White House operations. The White House press secretary wouldn’t even take impeachment questions, referring them all to a designated spokesman. And Clinton hammered on the strong economy and touted measures he supported to improve people’s daily lives.

But all anyone else talked about was impeachment.

“It’s such a big and profound issue that even though Bill Clinton was out there talking about his initiatives and programs, we had to fight hard to get any kind of attention on any kind of that stuff,” said Craig Smith, the White House political director during most of the presidential impeachment process. “In the middle of something like this, nobody should kid themselves and think they can get some kind of big, bipartisan thing done.”

Clinton managed some small wins—funding to reduce class sizes and an expansion of Head Start programs. But they came folded into the regular process of government funding bills and garnered little public attention.

“[Impeachment] supplanted everything,” said former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a longtime member of the House Appropriations Committee. “Regardless of what you did, that was still the story.”

That Was Then, This Is … Wow

Of course, there are differences between now and 1998. But they mostly suggest that even less will get done now than then.

Clinton was in the second year of his second term, a time when presidents rarely score major legislative wins, because they’ve either already accomplished their biggest policy proposals or already failed to. Clinton’s healthcare push flamed out early. His crime bill, including gun restrictions, was already law.

Trump’s not in his second term, but he is headed into an election year — a period when things rarely get done around Washington unless lawmakers are forced to grapple with a crisis.

Another key difference from two decades ago: Congress still functioned then.

There were still tons of moderates left in both parties, giving lawmakers more room to craft bipartisan agreements. Lawmakers could still get earmarks in spending bills to help their districts. And an institutional comity existed that helped them work together on less controversial topics, even as they attacked one another on issues like impeachment.

After wrapping up their impeachment war, Congress and Clinton managed to remove barriers for banks to also act as insurance companies. Many experts blame that deregulation for fueling the 2008 economic recession — but it was a big deal at the time for the banking industry.

“Then, Congress still worked generally a little bit better than it does today in terms of passing bills,” Kingston said. “But given the anemic performance of Congress these days I don’t see how this is going to spur anything along.”

And, of course, there’s Trump. Where Clinton forbade his official press secretary from discussing impeachment, Trump’s been acting as his own press secretary as he blames impeachment for nothing getting done (Among other statements he’s made about House Democrats, the media, and jockstraps).

“It took everything we could do to get at least some focus on some policy stuff,” said Smith, the former Clinton political director. “If you’ve got a president who’s not even trying, it ain’t going anywhere.”

During her press conference, Pelosi swore that Democrats actually want to get things done with the White House.

“When the president says that he can’t do anything as he has the threat of impeachment or a consideration of impeachment, I hope he doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to work together to lower the cost of prescription drugs,” Pelosi said. “I think we can work with the administration on prescription drugs — I hope so — and infrastructure.”

Trump’s response?

Copy: President Clinton at his State of the Union address Tuesday, Jan. 27, 1998, on Capitol Hill. Shaken by scandal, President Clinton sought to reassert his leadership in the crucial speech, urging Congress to "save Social Security first" before cutting taxes or increasing spending. Behind Clinton are Vice President Al Gore, left, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. (AP Photo/Joe Marquette, POOL)