Herald editorial: Let Congress do its job

February 24, 2019

During the unfortunately historic federal government shutdown that ended last month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell defended his refusal to let the Senate vote on proposals to end the shutdown without an agreement with President Donald Trump by saying, “They know that making laws takes a presidential signature. We all learned that in school.”

Now that the 35-day shutdown is in the rearview mirror, we urge our elected leaders, including those that represent Utah in Washington, to heed other important civic lessons after the president’s “emergency” declaration regarding the southern border. Namely, that Congress controls “the power of the purse” and the legislative, judicial and executive branches are separate and co-equal branches of government.

This week, the House of Representatives will vote on a measure to block Trump’s national emergency declaration. We strongly urge our elected representatives and senators to vote to approve the measure. If and when Trump vetoes the measure, we encourage them to vote to override the veto.

There have been national emergency declarations in the past. Some of them pertain to what most would agree are urgent matters — such as President George W. Bush after 9/11 or President Barack Obama after a swine flu epidemic killed 1,000 Americans in 2009. Some declarations are made to impose economic sanctions or to limit trade with hostile foreign powers, such as Iran, Iraq and Libya.

Trump’s “emergency” declaration is different. The president made his declaration after failing to get everything he wanted from Congress (and presumably from Mexico, if we’re holding the president to his campaign promises).

Congress, exercising its constitutional powers, allocated $1.4 billion to add 55 miles of barriers to the nearly 700 miles of walls and fencing that already exist on our border with Mexico. If we were following the civics lessons that McConnell holds so dear, Congress sets the budget and the White House administers it as the executive branch.

However, Trump determined that Congress’ allocation was inadequate and declared his “emergency” in an attempt to free up money dedicated to other causes to send to the border.

This “national emergency” is a farce, only slightly more realistic than Trump’s past declarations that Canadian steel and European cars threatened our national security. If the situation at the southern border was so endemic and dire, why did it take Trump more than two years to come to such a conclusion? Trump made his finding after the Republican Party controlled Congress for two years and after putting millions of people through a miserable shutdown that cost the economy an estimated $11 billion.

Trump’s claim that “I didn’t need to do this. But I’d rather do it much faster.” also undermines any claim for an “emergency.”

We’re for strong and reasonable border security. Unfortunately, an artificial barrier ignores many of the realities at the border, including the fact that people seeking asylum generally surrender themselves to law enforcement and that most illegal drugs are smuggled through ports of entry. It also doesn’t address that most illegal immigration occurs when people overstay their visas — far away from the border.

At this time, the White House is looking at where it could shift funding from other programs to the border, including military construction. However, most of that money’s been spoken for — it was authorized by Congress.

Congress must act to stop this usurpation of its constitutional powers. A president acting by fiat flies in the face of principles that most Americans hold dear. It also sets an ugly precedent that many rightly fear will be abused in the future.

To be sure, past presidents have acted unilaterally in the past. Many Utahns were unhappy when past presidents created national monuments, although it’s permitted under the law. Additionally, many were unhappy that Obama authorized the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. In that case, the president acted after congressional inaction.

In the case of the border, Congress reached a compromise and took action to resolve a stalemate. Just because it wasn’t enough for Trump doesn’t justify the declaration of a fake emergency. Our representatives must act and restore the checks and balances in our government or risk irrelevance and the future of our union.