Thursday’s Republican rebuke of President Donald Trump had nothing to do with border security and everything to do with clawing back the powers Congress has relinquished. And lawmakers are finding out the hard way how difficult that is.
Despite warnings from Trump that a vote for the House-passed resolution to end his emergency declaration would be “a vote for Nancy Pelosi, Crime, and the Open Border Democrats,” 12 Republican senators, including Utah’s Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, joined the 47 Senate Democrats to pass the measure.
Given the magnitude of the situation, it’s disappointing not more joined in. We’re certain those who voted “no” have read the Constitution, but it’s less certain they regard its framework.
The vote was a chance to send a message that lawmakers are willing to pare back an executive branch that has slowly amassed undelegated powers — a process that began long before Trump entered the Oval Office. At stake is an opportunity to stop any president from “acting like a king,” as Lee put it in a recent tweet.
Lee’s concern is real. Unilateral actions, long established as a legitimate form of executive privilege, have become a different animal in a post-9/11 America. President George W. Bush used executive power to act swiftly in the face of emergency, and Congress acquiesced given the fear of the unknown. President Barack Obama inherited that legacy in addition to an uncompromising Congress. “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone,” he quipped in 2014.
Trump has assumed that mantle and used executive orders to issue a ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority nations, to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and to now build a wall along the southern border in an effort address what many question is an actual emergency.
This trend consolidates power, which is hardly a good thing for a democratic society, and it creates more uncertainty than it resolves.
When Congress failed to act on immigration concerns under Obama’s tenure, the president unilaterally signed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA created a temporary legal status for children brought to the U.S., but it gave no clear path to citizenship. Six-and-half years later, legal battles and failed attempts to end the program have not brought recipients any closer to a sense of certainty in their future. It’s unfair to them, and it costs the nation.
To continue on this path is reckless. We join Lee and Romney in their concern that current executive overreach is an invitation for abuse by future presidents of any party.
They, along with the rest of Washington, should use Thursday’s vote to begin a long conversation on Article I and the constitutionally mandated separation of powers. Utah’s delegation has a good start — Lee’s Article I Act would, among other things, curb the president’s ability to declare national emergencies, and Utah Rep. John Curtis has signed onto similar legislation in the House — but the long game needs to focus on more than emergencies.
Abdicating authority is easy, and getting it back can be tremendously difficult. We hope that conversation proves productive before the country pays an unnecessary price for Congress’ negligence.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated that the Senate vote was one short of a veto-proof majority. The Senate needs 67 votes to override a veto, not 60.