Democrats start the first full week of 2019 in a better position than they’ve had in years. The new Congress was sworn in last week and Nancy Pelosi took the Speaker’s gavel again. My #NCPOL twitter feed was full of new legislators taking the oath of office this weekend and now neither chamber of the legislature holds veto proof majorities. 

Democrats are clearly optimistic despite controversial statements by newly minted Members of Congress. A Congresswoman from Michigan called for impeaching Trump, calling him a motherfucker in the process. Rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called for raising the top marginal tax rate to 70%, making our tax structure look more like the one in the 1960s and 1970s. Republicans pounced on both statements. While both statements might be legitimate priority and policy debates, neither carries much weight in Congress given the GOP’s control of the Senate and White House. 

However, both statements are reminders of Democrats’ primary roles in both Washington and North Carolina.  In both Congress and the legislature, Democrats are in a position to stop bad legislation and add accountability, not pass bold policy agendas. And that’s a powerful role. 

In Congress, Republicans have refused to serve as a check on the president. Trump has operated almost unimpeded by the Senate or House under Paul Ryan. Instead, they’ve deferred to members who want to protect Trump from scrutiny. Democrats can now investigate president and the administration, adding accountability to their role.

In North Carolina, some ambitious freshmen will come to Raleigh with a lot of enthusiasm, not understanding their role. They have little power to pass anything. Their power lies in upholding the Governor’s veto. They can force some negotiations, but they aren’t in the driver’s seat by a long stretch.

In North Carolina, Democrats should grab onto one or two broadly popular ideas that the GOP leadership opposes and try to force action. In particular, they should make a nonpartisan redistricting program a priority. The idea has broad support among the public and in the General Assembly. If a bill were put on the floor, it would pass both chambers with large margins. However, the GOP leadership has kept it bottled up, despite President Pro-tem Phil Berger’s sponsorship of such legislation before he got control. 

It will be up the leadership to temper newly elected law makers’ expectations. In Congress, Pelosi knows how to discipline and hold her caucus together. In the General Assembly, experienced leader in the House and Senate should be able to guide their new members. Democrats should feel good about their new power, but keep expectations modest. 

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