President Trump’s erosions of basic checks and balances in U.S. government is understandably not front of mind for people who are struggling to pay for food or housing as Washington fails to fund a deal to help Americans.
He risks setting a precedent for other presidents (yes, including Democrats) to try to ignore Congress, as well. And Republicans have let Trump — and even cheered him on — as he significantly erodes the working relationship between the two branches of government.
The most recent example comes this weekend, when Trump signed executive orders to try to provide Americans financial and eviction relief after bipartisan negotiations in Congress for a more thorough bill fell apart.
Constitutional experts questioned whether it was even legal for Trump to essentially try to create and sign his own legislation. It was just the latest example of Trump treating Congress like an obstacle, rather than an equal branch of government.
He and his administration have more often than not chosen to ignore Congress’s constitutional powers to be a check on the executive branch. They have refused to provide documents or officials to testify for investigations that Trump considers a threat to him. My Washington Post colleagues counted 20 congressional investigations opened by House Democrats last year that Trump and his allies actively worked to impede.
And when lawmakers won’t give him what he wants, he has sometimes chosen to ignore that Congress alone has the power to spend the nation’s money. When Democratic and Republican lawmakers said no to his request for money to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, he diverted money from the military to do it himself. A similar situation is playing out with coronavirus relief aid. One of his executive orders takes tens of billions from a disaster relief program for hurricanes, tornadoes and fires to pay for unemployment benefits.
It’s easy to chalk Trump’s actions up to: Both sides do it. In 2014, after Congress failed to pass an immigration deal, President Barack Obama single-handedly extended protection from deportation to immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. Republicans in Congress criticized Obama then for doing what Trump is doing now, just as Democrats are criticizing Trump today.
But Trump has taken this to greater extremes, and Republicans have let him. (Just one Senate Republican, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, spoke out this weekend about Trump’s end-run around Congress, calling it “unconstitutional slop.”)
Unlike past presidents, Trump doesn’t wield his authority only as a last resort. Stiff-arming Congress is often his first reaction.
As House Democrats began their impeachment investigation of his actions on Ukraine, Trump refused to let anyone in the executive branch testify or hand over documents. (Some did despite that ban.) In the end, the House voted to impeach Trump for obstructing its inquiry, arguing that lawmakers needed to set a marker in history that ignoring congressional requests is not acceptable.
Republicans in Congress understandably opposed impeachment, but they took their support for Trump to another level. The constitutional division of powers maintains that the White House is supposed to cooperate in good faith with Congress on an investigation. Theoretically, once Congress had the documents and testimony, then the parties could argue about whether Trump deserved to be impeached. This White House refused to cooperate with Congress, and Republicans in Congress cheered Trump for ignoring their own branch of government.
When Attorney General William P. Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross refused to comply last summer with a congressional subpoena for the House’s investigation of the 2020 Census questionnaire, House Democratic leaders decided to vote to hold them in contempt for it — a charge that theoretically carries with it potential criminal penalties. Not a single Republican voted for it.
More recently, Trump wasn’t personally involved in these coronavirus relief negotiations in Congress. But when they crumbled, he was more than willing to step in with his own proposals, including one that Senate Republicans had rejected during negotiations for being unworkable: pausing the payroll tax.
If Congress had passed a bill through the Republican-controlled Senate, a payroll tax break almost certainly wouldn’t be in the legislation. Yet Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) issued a statement this weekend celebrating Trump’s executive orders: “I am glad that President Trump is proving that while Democrats use laid-off workers as political pawns, Republicans will actually look out for them.”
McConnell is referring to a short-term political win. Republicans, led by Trump, can say they were taking action in the face of intransigent Democrats in Congress. (Although the help from Trump’s executive orders is likely to be nominal, if it comes at all. A bill passed by Congress and signed into law by Trump probably would have given more permanent relief.)
This is almost certainly a long-term loss for both parties.
The conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal editorial board warned Sunday of what this might look like in four or eight years for the Republicans cheering Trump’s actions today: It is “a bad legal precedent that a President Kamala Harris could cite if a GOP Congress blocked her agenda on, say, climate change.”
Trump isn’t the first president to do an end-run around Congress, but he is likely to go down in history as the modern president doing it the most often with the least amount of justification. That’s a lasting legacy.