Congress needs to reassert its authority

March 6, 2019

Republicans in the United States Senate next week will confront their first – but probably not their last – constitutional question concerning abuse of presidential power by President Donald Trump.

The Senate will vote on a proposal to block Trump’s Feb. 15 declaration of a national emergency at the southern border. Trump declared the flow of illegal immigration crossing the border an urgent national crisis after Congress failed to allocate funding for a border wall the president has long championed.

The emergency declaration allows Trump to circumvent the will of Congress by diverting $3.6 billion from Pentagon funds allocated for military construction projects. Trump’s declaration bypasses the exclusive constitutional authority of Congress to decide how federal dollars are spent.

The House on Feb. 26 voted 245-182 to overturn Trump’s emergency declaration. Thirteen Republicans voted with the Democratic majority. The Senate vote will happen before Congress goes into recess on March 15.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky last weekend became the fourth Republican senator to oppose Trump’s declaration. The other three GOP senators opposing the declaration include Maine’s Susan Collins, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. More are expected.

Republicans hold a 53-47 Senate majority. If at least those four Republicans join with the 47 Democratic senators united in opposition, the measure will be approved and sent to Trump for signature.

Trump has vowed a veto. It would require 66 senators and 287 House members to vote to override Trump’s veto; a highly unlikely outcome. Assuming Trump’s veto prevails, the matter will move to the courts where lawsuits are pending to stop the diversion of Pentagon funds for wall construction.

According to Sen. Paul, as many as 10 Republican senators may vote to oppose Trump’s emergency declaration. They should. They all should.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader from Kentucky, is sending mixed signals to his Republican colleagues. McConnell says he will vote to uphold Trump’s emergency. However, McConnell, a wizard of legislative parlor games, warns that Trump’s emergency ploy opens the door for a future Democratic president to pull the same stunt and divert federal dollars to battle climate change or gun control, or to advance universal health care.

McConnell is right about that, but that is not the point.

This issue is not about liberals versus conservatives, or about one political party gaining advantage over another. It’s not about building a ridiculous border wall, or even about immigration. And it is certainly should not be a litmus test for loyalty to Donald Trump.

This issue is about Congress reclaiming its constitutionally appointed position as an equal branch of government after decades of frittering it away to the executive branch. This issue centers on nullifying presidential overreach.

The separation of powers in government, and the ingenious system of checks and balances among the three branches, are the bedrock of the American experiment. The Constitution of the United States specifically limits the powers of the executive to prevent an imperial president.

Unfortunately, the current White House occupant pays little attention to any limits imposed on his behavior, constitutional or otherwise. His actions and demeanor embrace the imperial.

In typical Trump fashion, the president issued warnings to those Republican senators who remain undecided on the emergency declaration, telling Fox News last week: “I really think that Republicans that vote against border security and the wall — I think they put themselves at great jeopardy.”

That is a direct threat to Trump’s fellow Republicans. Trump is daring them to defy him and face the wrath of his loyal MAGA base and a potential primary challenge from the right.

That’s a tough political position for Senate Republicans. Too bad for them. Political worries pale in comparison to the constitutional issue front and center of this vote.

On this crucial constitutional question, Republican senators cannot ignore the predations of a power-hungry executive. It is not enough for Republican senators, like McConnell, to cluck their tongues and show concern about the emergency declaration, but then vote to uphold Trump.

Approve the measure to revoke the emergency declaration. When the veto comes from Trump, override it.

Whether an override succeeds or fails, Democrats and Republicans should work together to both narrow the National Emergencies Act language so a president can only utilize it for true emergencies and to strengthen congressional oversight of such declarations.