Once again, congressional Republicans are facing a gut-check moment, forced to choose between supporting and defending the Constitution or Donald J. Trump. It’s not looking good.
House Democrats introduced a joint resolution of disapproval on Friday aimed at canceling President Trump’s bogus national emergency at the southern border. Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas is leading the charge, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expediting the measure, which is on track for a floor vote on Tuesday. It is widely expected to pass the chamber, where Democrats have the majority.
Once the resolution clears the House, the Senate is required to hold its own vote within 18 days — meaning the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, cannot do his usual stonewalling. Even so, with Republicans in control there, and loath to irk the president, the resolution is widely expected to die. At that point, it will be up to the courts, where multiple suits have already been filed, to grapple with this out-of-control executive.
It is not too late to stop this legislative cop-out. Critical principles are at stake — Congress’s power of the purse, the separation of powers — that transcend any one declaration or leader. Members of both parties need to make clear that a presidential pique is not the same thing as a national emergency, that a president who fails to persuade Congress to support his priorities can’t then simply pursue them by fiat. Lawmakers who cannot rally themselves to this cause should stop pretending that they’re anything more than partisan automatons; they will have declared themselves members of a second-class branch of government.
As has often been noted, there is no border emergency, aside from Mr. Trump’s desperation to make good on a rabble-rousing campaign slogan. Having failed to extract billions of taxpayer dollars from Congress for the construction of his wall, the president executed a power grab. Don’t just take our word for it; that’s how Mr. Trump himself explained it in last week’s bizarre Rose Garden emergency declaration.
Think of it as the presidential equivalent of phoning 911 because your pizza delivery is taking too long.
Congress has the power to effectively override an emergency declaration through a resolution of disapproval. On Wednesday, Ms. Pelosi sent Democratic and Republican members a “Dear Colleague” letter urging support for such as move. “We have a solemn responsibility to uphold the Constitution, and defend our system of checks and balances against the President’s assault,” she wrote.
House Republicans once cared passionately about checks and balances, and frequently accused President Barack Obama of abusing his authority. In 2016, one of the “Big Ideas” in the conference’s “Better Way Agenda” was a pledge to end presidential overreach: “Our President has been acting more like a monarch than an elected official. That stops now.”
Mr. Obama did extend emergency declarations for several uncontroversial foreign policy matters and use executive orders (lawfully) to achieve policy goals. But he never invoked emergency authority to divert money after Congress refused to fund a pet project.
For some reason, the Republicans have been far less vocal about their high-minded principles with Mr. Trump in the White House. Of the more than 225 co-sponsors who had signed on to the disapproval resolution as of Friday, only one was a Republican, Representative Justin Amash of Michigan.
In the Senate, plenty of Republicans remain skittish about executive overreach. Several have publicly expressed disapproval of Mr. Trump’s faux-mergency, ranging from the ultraconservative Mike Lee to the more moderate Susan Collins, from the freshman Mitt Romney to the old-timer Chuck Grassley. “I don’t like this,” Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski told The Associated Press. “I think it takes us down a road and with a precedent that, if it’s allowed, that we may come to regret.” Kentucky’s Rand Paul declared that “extraconstitutional executive actions are wrong, no matter which party does them.”
For the joint resolution to clear the Senate, only four Republicans need to join Democrats to assert that the president cannot thumb his nose at Congress whenever it suits him. But despite all the hand wringing, thus far, only one has said she will: Ms. Collins, who recently told reporters, “If it’s a clean disapproval resolution, I will support it.”
Some Republicans dislike what Mr. Trump has done but have convinced themselves that there’s no point in voting for the resolution since the president will surely veto it. Others rationalize that the emergency declaration, while outrageous, may be technically legal, and thus should be left to the courts to sort out. Some Republicans are toying with the idea of voting against the resolution but then introducing new legislation to reform the underlying National Emergencies Act.
These are all dodges — ways to make Republicans feel better about not pushing back — and they can provide only false comfort. As he has shown time and again, Mr. Trump is a bully, and he likes to push boundaries. Let him take your lunch money today, and tomorrow he will kick you out of your treehouse.
Republican lawmakers swore an oath to bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution and to well and faithfully discharge the duties of their office. Here’s their chance.
A podcast featuring Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg and David Leonhardt