October 8, 2019
As the perennial Washington circus continues its long run, I have started getting a new question: will impeachment derail—take your pick—Congressional action on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the China talks, negotiations with the European Union, or anything else that comes to mind.
My answer is not necessarily, but then again, this is Washington, and it is a circus. Strictly from a process point of view, there is no reason why it should. Looking at the USMCA, which is the one trade issue where Congress currently has a significant role to play, there are only a handful of House members directly involved in talks with the administration, and it appears that only one of them, Representative Richard Neal (D-MA), the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, may also be deeply involved in Congress’ work on impeachment. On the other side, Ambassador Lighthizer is not involved in it and has made clear he does not intend to get involved in it, telling the media he plans to stay in his lane. So, there is no reason why negotiations should not continue.
In the Senate, senators are beginning to think about what they will do if presented with articles of impeachment from the House, and they appear to be looking at the process in President Clinton’s case for guidance. (President Nixon resigned before anything ever got to the Senate.) In the Clinton case, the Senate was careful to schedule the trial for the afternoon, leaving mornings open for legislative business. Senators appeared to believe that it was important to show that normal business could continue even while extraordinary events were occurring. Early signs suggest that today’s House and Senate members feel the same way. Certainly, it is in the Democrats’ interest to demonstrate they can and will continue to legislate.
I would also argue that moving forward on impeachment actually gives Speaker Pelosi additional flexibility—she can balance that effort, which is of enormous importance to the progressive wing of her party, with action on USMCA, which is important to her centrist wing, particularly those in the Midwest who defeated Republican incumbents in 2018 and are instrumental in the Democrats’ majority in the House.
As has always been the case, of course, the president could torpedo the process if he carries out his threat not to engage on legislation while impeachment is pending. That would mean he chooses to have a political issue rather than a substantive victory on a signature issue, which I think is unlikely, even though carefully considered decisionmaking has not been his strong suit.
With respect to the China trade talks, there is no inherent reason why they would have to stop. This is also a signature issue for the president, who campaigned on trade and the need to fix “bad” agreements and bad policy in 2016 and gives every impression of intending to do so again next year. Abandoning the negotiations or allowing them to wither away would be labeled a major failure by his opponents. (However, it should be noted that events in Hong Kong might force a breakdown regardless of impeachment.) The Chinese, in turn, have no good reason right now to end the talks. If they did so, they get Trump off the political hook by allowing him to blame them for the outcome, and they would invite further retaliation.
The recent suggestion by the president that China should investigate his domestic political opponent does drag them into the impeachment debate, but I don't think that inevitably leads to a breakdown. If the Chinese refuse the president’s suggestion and he retaliates by canceling the talks, he would only add fuel to the Congressional fire. If they accept his suggestion, then he would have no reason to pull out. So, for better or worse, I think the talks continue. However, the president’s growing difficulties could well make the kind of deal he wants harder to reach. The Chinese no doubt interpret what is going on as a sign of political weakness and therefore a reason to toughen their position. The president, in turn, might decide a “victory,” and he will certainly call any result that, is more important than ever regardless of the terms.
Finally, it would be wise to keep in mind lessons from the Clinton impeachment. Serving in the administration at the time, I learned that it was far more a distraction for the White House than for Congress. The president’s staff members were overwhelmed by it and reluctant to take on additional fights, urgent or not. If that happens again, it could upend my analysis.
William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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