While researching at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., I ran across a fascinating and timely exchange of letters from 1983. On Feb. 1, H.E. “Eddie” Chiles of Fort Worth wrote to President Ronald Reagan expressing alarm that “our nation today is facing as grave a situation as this nation faced after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.” He suggested that Reagan “go before the public on radio and television and declare that a state of emergency exists. Then, you could appoint a President’s council made up of all living former presidents and all living former secretaries of treasury. This council should immediately go to work solving our budget and financial problems.”
Nine days later, Reagan personally replied. (The handwritten original is in the archives.) The president expressed frustration with “the extent to which Congress has reduced presidential powers,” particularly “in the budgeting process.” “I don’t believe there is a state in the Union with a budget system as Mickey Mouse as that of the federal government,” Reagan complained. “What I wouldn’t give to have a majority in both houses. Believe me I dream of making some fundamental reforms before I leave this place.”
But the Gipper firmly swatted away the idea of declaring a state of emergency to cut spending. “Eddie,” he wrote, “I don’t believe the President has the power to declare an emergency short of war.”
Now there is another Republican in the Oval Office, and he does believe that the president has that power. President Trump has declared a state of emergency to build a border wall — even though illegal immigration is down 75 percent since 2000. Trump himself admitted, in a rare moment of candor, that no emergency exists, saying, “I didn’t need to do this.”
Trump’s action is an affront to all that Republicans stand for. They claim to be pro-military, but Trump’s action would take money away from the defense budget. They claim to be pro-property rights, but Trump’s action would result in the taking of private property along the border. And they claim to be constitutional conservatives, but Trump’s action is an obvious violation of Article I of the Constitution: “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”
Republicans condemned President Barack Obama’s use of executive authority as, in the words of Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.)‚ “an unprecedented executive power grab” and an “end-run around Congress” that would “undermine the Constitution and threaten our democracy.” They called him a “king,” “emperor” and “tyrant.” They were particularly exercised that Obama used executive authority on the issue of — oh, the irony — immigration. In 2014, Trump condemned Obama’s executive order to stop deportations of undocumented parents of children born in the United States as “a very, very dangerous thing that should be overwritten easily by the Supreme Court.”
Now Trump is traducing the Constitution in ways that Obama would never have dared. This is only the second time since the passage of the 1976 National Emergencies Act that a president has used his emergency powers to take military action — in this case to divert defense funds to build a border wall. The only previous time was after 9/11. And never before has a president employed emergency powers to fund a project that Congress refused to appropriate.
Many Republicans understand what a dangerous precedent this sets. “The whole idea that presidents — whether it’s President Trump, President Warren or President Sanders — can declare an emergency and somehow usurp the separation of powers and get into the business of appropriating money for specific projects without Congress being involved, is a serious constitutional question,” Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) told CNN in early February.
Now Republicans have a chance to vote their consciences, if they have any left. The House will vote Tuesday on a resolution to repeal the state of emergency. The Senate will have its opportunity soon. This is the most important vote that Republicans will make in their lives. And there is every indication that almost all of them will make the wrong choice.
Only one Republican, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, has co-sponsored the House resolution of disapproval. Almost all Republicans will likely do what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) did: He warned against the emergency declaration before it was issued but supported it after Trump ignored his advice.
If Republicans support this unconstitutional power grab, they will have completed their transformation from the party of Reagan — a party devoted to conservative principles — to the party of Trump — a party devoted to no principle other than a desperate desire to propitiate a capricious would-be tyrant in the White House. They might as well get rid of the elephant and make their party symbol a curved yellow fruit, because they will have become banana republicans. I am worried about the Democrats’ drift to the left, but I can never imagine voting again for a Republican Party that represents a clear and present danger to democracy in the United States.