Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell says he made 'inadvertent omission' in voting remarks amid backlash These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 WATCH: The Hill recaps the top stories of the week MORE (R-Ky.) should take a break from his partisanship and pull a Roberts — act to safeguard the institution that he leads and often states that he venerates. I am referring to the patriotic act of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, a judge who mostly votes with the conservative members of his court.
However, at a critical moment, in the middle of the 2012 presidential election year and during a highly partisan court battle, he voted with the court’s liberals to preserve the Affordable Care Act. His vote was widely regarded as an effort to preserve the independence of, and respect for, the institution he leads. It was a crucial step that sought to preserve the checks and balance among the three branches of the democratic government.
The nation now needs a similar major act to preserve the standing of Congress. This is called for because President Trump recently acted particularly egregiously to undermine the constitutionally mandated balance between the executive and the legislature. He openly moved to circumvent and undermine the mechanisms Congress set in place explicitly in order to hold the executive accountable.
As part of the CARES Act (the $2 trillion economic relief act), Congress formed a Pandemic Response Accountability Committee to ensure that the president does not use the monies Congress appropriated as a slush fund to benefit states and businesses loyal to him.
The chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency selected Glenn Fine, the acting inspector general (IG) of the Department of Defense, to serve as the chairman of the new committee. Less than two weeks later, Trump removed Fine from his position as acting IG, making him ineligible to serve as the chairman of the newly created committee. Paul Rosenzweig, who served in the George W. Bush administration, called Trump’s removal of Fine “an affront to independence and oversight.”
This development followed many previous acts by Trump that weakened Congress and made the president ever more imperial. These acts include his unilateral decision to take scores of billions of dollars in funds that Congress designated for the military and instead spend them on the border wall, a move opposed even by Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Major Russia weapons test stokes tensions Unnamed law enforcement banned under the new NDAA Lobbying world MORE (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, who noted that Trump’s reapportionment is “contrary to Congress’s constitutional authority.”
Trump refused to allow staff, even individuals no longer serving in the White House, to testify before Congress; failed to deliver documents Congress sought; appointed “acting” officials to serve in positions that require Senate confirmation, thereby circumnavigating the Senate’s constitutionally mandated “advice and consent” role; and neglected to consult with Congress before carrying out attacks on foreign soil, particularly the assassinations of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, recently wrote that “the president seems to view any independence within the government and certainly any checks on him as intolerable disloyalty; that notion, of course, runs counter to our entire system of checks and balances.” New York Times columnist David Brooks has written, “The administration’s policy of blanket noncooperation with Congress is clearly a betrayal of how our system of government is supposed to work.”
Granted, Trump is not the first president to undermine the division of powers that was so dear to the Founding Fathers. There has been a long trend of weakening Congress, both by the executive and by the legislature itself. As The Atlantic’s David A. Graham put it, “Expanding presidential prerogatives is practically part of the job description in the modern era.”
One of the most visible manifestations of the expansion of executive power and the contraction of congressional power is the authority to wage war. In a recent report about this issue, NPR summed up the situation by pointing out that “the Constitution limits the president’s power to wage war but presidents have gotten around that and Congress has only rarely asserted itself successfully.” But President Trump has taken the executive power grab to a much higher order than his predecessors. If he can get away with these latest maneuvers, Congress will lose even more of its ability to discharge its responsibilities and become even less respected by the public.
I grant that it is far from obvious what can be done that would restore its standing to anywhere near where it ought to be. In the past, Congress used the power of the purse to try to make the executive toe the line in some matters. But Trump simply ignores these strictures. Theoretically, Congress could sue Trump; however, it is far from clear that the court would choose to act, and what action it would take if it did. It is very clear that, at best, the courts will be very slow to act, while action is needed now. Congress cannot send the sergeant at arms to bring the president before the legislature if he ignores congressional dictates.
Sen. McConnell, though, has the power of the pulpit. He can initiate a bipartisan resolution condemning the president’s obstruction of oversight and accountability and demanding that Congress determines who serves as the overseers. Such a bipartisan resolution would at least show that Congress will not simply ignore ever more brazen power grabs by the president, and it could serve as a first step toward restoring the system of checks and balances.
If McConnell’s concern for the institution he was chosen to lead does not move him, nor does the urgent need to shore up the essential foundations of American democracy, maybe a raw fact will. In a few months, a Democrat may well move into the White House. McConnell and his fellow Republican surely do not wish for a Democrat to pick up where Trump leaves the balance of power — with a Congress ever-more overruled and disrespected.
Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. His most recent book, “Reclaiming Patriotism,” is available for download without charge.