How the House Judiciary Committee’s Makeup Will Shape Impeachment

Some of you must already be wondering whether we’re headed for impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives if the Democrats take control of that chamber in the upcoming midterms. It’s been a long time since the country has been subjected to that kind of spectacle, and many of you were probably children in December 1998 when Newt Gingrich’s lame duck House did its perfunctory work on the Starr Report and voted to impeach Bill Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice.

We can’t know what the Mueller Report will look like, but we can already get a sense for who some of the main actors will be in any impeachment inquiry. The main committee that will handle the hearings is the Judiciary Committee and the it’s not unlikely that some preliminary work will be handled by a subcommittee that is responsible for Constitutional issues.

Right away, one thing that’s notable is that there will be some churn in the present membership of these committees. The chairman of the Judiciary Committee today is Bob Goodlatte, who is not running for reelection.  Other retiring members include Republicans Darrell Issa, Ted Poe, Tom Marino, Trey Gowdy, Raúl Labrador, Ron DeSantis, and Democrat Luis Gutiérrez.  In addition, Pennsylvania Republican Keith Rothfus is trailing Democrat Conor Lamb by thirteen points in a recent Monmouth poll.


When control of the House switches hands, it’s customary for the ranking member of the minority party (in this case, Jarrold Nadler of New York City) to become the chairman. He or she may then reorganize the subcommittees if they like, even adding, subtracting, or renaming some. They also can reevaluate who leads those subcommittees, although present seniority usually prevails, particularly in the Democratic caucus.  Lastly, the Democrats will add approximately seven members, and the Republicans may lose one or two in addition to those who are retiring or get defeated.

The GOP has some arcane rules about how long a member may serve as a chairman or ranking member and that could come into play here. With Goodlatte retiring, the ranking member position should fall by seniority to James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, but he served as the chairman of the Judiciary Committee for three full terms between January 3, 2001 and January 3, 2007, so he may be ineligible. Next in line is Lamar Smith of Texas. He served in the position from January 3, 2011 – January 3, 2013.  He presently works as the chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology committee and may prefer to stay on there.

In other words, it’s hard to predict who would be the point person for the Republicans in the House for fending off or delegitimizing the impeachment of Donald Trump. Steve Chabot of Cincinnati is a possibility, but he’s being outraised by his Democratic opponent Aftab Pureval and his reelection is no sure thing. We can only hope that the Republicans don’t let the responsibility fall all the way down to Louis Gohmert–because no one deserves that kind of crazy.

The way things are set up now, however, we may see some serious craziness on the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice. If the Mueller Report isn’t delivered immediately in January, the new chairman, Jerry Nadler, may delegate some prep work to this subcommittee. For example, it may hold hearings and bring in experts to testify on issues like the Emoluments Clause to the Constitution.

That looks like it would pit Democrat Steve Cohen of Memphis against the most unapologetically racist member of Congress, Rep. Steve King of Iowa. In that case, the personalities of the two main players would likely take a lot of the attention away from the substance of the hearings.

Steve Cohen is in some ways quite capable of handling such a weighty responsibility, but he’s an easy target for President Trump and the right-wing media circus. He’s in the news today for something that’s kind of characteristic of him.

Audio of Tennessee Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen caught him saying he wished President Donald Trump would tell Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn to jump off a bridge.

The audio obtained by HuffPost was of Cohen at a community prayer breakfast in Memphis supporting former Gov. Phil Bredesen, who is running for Senate against Blackburn…

…“The big orange president …. He’s going to come down here and he is going to endorse Marsha Blackburn, because Marsha Blackburn, if he says, ‘Jump off the Harahan Bridge,’ she’ll jump off the Harahan Bridge,” he said. “I wish he’d say that.”

Guests are heard laughing at the remarks.

In response, Bredesen’s campaign provided HuffPost with remarks he made at the same event where he did not explicitly criticize Blackburn or Trump.

“I really don’t want [this election] to be about my opponent and who’s best and who’s worst or who’s made most mistakes, or things like that,” he said at the time. “I really want this election to be about ideas, and I want you to ask everyone to vote for the person who they think got the best ideas about how to create opportunity in Tennessee, and create opportunity in the United States of America.”

Cohen told HuffPost in a phone interview he didn’t wish Blackburn harm.

“It was obviously humor,” he said. “I wish her no harm. I hope she doesn’t get the Senate. And I wish she wasn’t a lackey for Trump. But I don’t wish her physical harm.”

Partisan bomb-throwing is just part of Cohen’s nature, as is a certain lack of judgment. Despite his intelligence and knowledge of the law, he’d make a far from ideal moral arbiter and face of impeachment. Of course, Steve King would be a far worse choice for the Republicans. Watching Cohen and Jamie Raskin face off against Steve King and Louie Gohmert would make for a lot of fireworks, contrast, and compelling television, but would struggle to reach a level of high-mindedness suited to the job.

As for the full Judiciary Committee, it would be interesting to have a New Yorker essentially prosecuting the president. Nadler’s 10th congressional district is adjacent to the 12th district where Trump Tower is located. He definitely qualifies as a peer of Donald Trump in that sense, although Nadler couldn’t be more removed and exotic to the base of Trump’s national support. Whether they’d even consider him a real American is an open question.

Of the Democrats currently serving on the Judiciary Committee, only Californians Zoe Lofgren and Eric Swalwell are white protestants. Of the remainder, one was born in India and another in Taiwan, while five are Jewish, six black, and one Latino.  This is a reflection of the diversity of the Democratic Party, but also of how unrepresentative it is of the traditional America so valued by the MAGA crew and its media leaders. On the Republican side, they have only reserved two of their twenty-four slots on the committee for women, and the only religious minority and person of color (Raúl Labrador) won’t be serving on the committee next year.

Assuming the Mueller Report comes in with information absolutely meriting impeachment, a Democratic House will probably go ahead and do just that, but for it to be successful, it must either force Trump’s resignation or result in a successful prosecution in the Senate. Trump doesn’t have many friends in the Senate–and senators don’t serve in safe hyper-Republican districts, but must compete in statewide elections. There may be enough Republican senators sufficiently concerned about Trump’s leadership to result in a conviction, but that becomes more unlikely if House Democrats are not supported by a big majority of the people. That’s why the Democrats should not put bomb throwers in charge. They should be deliberate, fair, temperate, somber, regretful, and resolute.

I think Jerry Nadler can do an adequate job of this, but he’ll need to be mindful of who he deputizes, and the risk that the whole effort devolves into a kind of cultural civil war.  Just as it would be a bad mistake for Trump to rely on Steve King and Louie Gohmert to be the face of his defense, the Democrats need to do everything they can to present the evidence through spokespeople who aren’t easily discredited or discounted.

For obvious reasons, both parties tend to fill their Judiciary Committee slots with reliable partisans who serve in very safe districts. That’s not the best recipe for either party in the next Congress. For Republicans, they’d like to emerge with some small measure of dignity still intact, and that’s not happening if Steve King and Louie Gohmert are running their show. For Democrats, they don’t want a Senate acquittal, and that means Steve Cohen is not the best guy to be leading hearings. I like the guy, but he’s not right for the part.

It’d be nice if this issue were treated with the respect and seriousness it deserves, but also with a strategy that can get us through to the other side in a condition from which we can begin to recover as a nation. The congressional leadership of both parties should keep that in mind when making decisions on how to staff the Judiciary Committee next year.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.