The country is about to experience an incredibly dangerous precedent. With the announcement that President Donald Trump plans to declare a state of emergency to fund his promised border wall, Americans should be very concerned about the state of our government. Cherished institutions like the separation of powers, checks and balances, and the Constitution itself are in danger of being lost if we continue heading down the road of unchecked executive authority.
When Barack Obama announced that he could circumvent Congress to impose his will via “a pen and a phone,” constitutional conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians were rightly outraged and alarmed. The Constitution is clear, right in the very first clause, that lawmaking power rests with Congress alone, not the president, and goes on to specify that Congress holds the power of the purse, meaning that government funding must pass through the rigorous legislative process before being approved. For a president to simply ignore these clauses is potentially devastating to our Republic, which was founded on the belief that limitations on government power are essential ingredients to freedom and prosperity. The president is very clearly not a king; he can’t just do whatever he wants.
Now, Trump is picking up the ball Obama left behind and running with it. If he follows through on his stated intention to use emergency powers to fund a border wall, he will be opening the door to still more grievous abuses in the future.
It’s not often that I agree with Nancy Pelosi, but she happens to be right in her rebuke of the president, pointing out that a future Democratic president can use these same emergency powers to crack down on gun violence, or anything else he or she finds vaguely threatening.
I understand that border security is important to many Americans, and that those who voted for Trump want him to follow through on his campaign promise to build the wall, but process matters. If Trump is allowed to weaken the definition of “emergency” to include a border that has been at least somewhat porous since basically forever, there’s essentially no limit to what future presidents could push through using similar logic. It’s easy to imagine a declaration of emergency citing climate change as a reason to incorporate some of the features of, for example, the Green New Deal that has been alarming most of the country for the last couple of weeks. If that does end up happening, those who were silent over Trump’s use of emergency powers will have only themselves to blame.
And speaking of blame, there is more than enough to go around. Pretty much every president has at one time or another wished to exceed his constitutional authority to “get things done.” Without excusing that impulse, we know that power corrupts and can understand why the urge is so hard to resist. That’s why it is the job of the other branches of government to step in and stop such abuses when they are in danger of occurring.
Congress ought to be unanimous in its disapproval of the presidential usurpation of legislative power, and pass a veto-proof bill tying the hands of the executive. But they won’t.
Over the years, Congress has voluntarily ceded more and more authority to the president and to executive branch agencies, in order to avoid the nasty business of going on record and voting for things that might be unpopular with the voters. In the interest of perpetual reelection, Congress has neutered itself on important issues like deciding when and where the United States goes to war, and what they can let the president get away with on his own authority. Moreover, partisanship has become so bad that many Republicans are willing to assent absolutely to anything that the Democrats oppose, supposed principles notwithstanding.
That leaves the judicial branch. While Trump’s decision will certainly attract lawsuits as soon as it is official, the Supreme Court has gradually morphed from a body designed to uphold the Constitution against all attacks, into a rubber stamp for whatever the president wants to do, upholding one blatantly unconstitutional action after another until one wonders what the point of the court is at all. And even if the court can muster the energy to rule against Trump here, it likely won’t matter. Lawsuits typically take years to make it all the way to the Supreme Court, and by that time the money will have already been spent and the wall will have already been built. A retrospective vote of disapproval will have little meaning at that point.
Given the impotence and lethargy of these institutions, the only thing that might actually stay the president’s hand is the threat of losing reelection, in other words, a vast and unified cry of disapproval from the voters themselves. I understand Trump’s popularity and the desire of many on the right to “stick it to the libs,” but I urge anyone who has a shred of respect for the Constitution to consider the implications of a president who can fund whatever he wants at will, and resist. For those of you who want a wall, fight for it through legal, constitutional procedure, not by converting presidents into despots. I promise you, the ends do not justify the means.