Judd Gregg: A serious time for the Senate

Judd Gregg: A serious time for the Senate
© Greg Nash

It is not too much of a stretch to say that our constitutional structure is under stress today.

It is ironic that this should be so, since the nation is generally in a good place.

Our economy is strong. We seem to have muted the threat of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, at least so far as it is aimed at us. China is a real and rising competitor but this is mostly a commercial concern rather than a military threat.

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Obviously there are hotspots and bad actors around the world, but as of right now the horizon is bright.

Yet our national government has a tone of distress.

Governance has all but stopped.

The elective branches — the presidency and the Congress — are not doing much. Those things they are doing do not seem to be going very well.

Each branch has in large part brought this state of dysfunction onto itself. But the results have been amplified by the effects of social media, talk radio and cable news.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment MORE was elected in large part because of his willingness to step outside traditional bounds. He has continued this style in office.

Unfortunately, his waves of tweets and helter-skelter approach have compromised the office of the presidency.

He came into office with the stated purpose of creating disorder in Washington. But in doing so, he has degraded the status of the presidency, so that it no longer serves as an emblem of the higher calling that Americans expect and the world needs.

In the process, he has inflicted wounds upon his own ability to pursue his agenda.

Voters in the House Congressional elections last year delivered a clear rebuke of his style. It was the president who essentially turned the House over to the Democrats.

Now, of course, he cannot escape this problem of his own making. He is unable to get money to fulfill one of his signature campaign promises — building the wall.

To counter this, he has decided to step beyond the norm, declare a national emergency and move money around independent of the oversight or approval of the Congress. It is a gambit frothing with constitutional questions and dangers.

However, the House under the new — though literally old — Democratic leadership has also decided to follow a path of lesser purpose.

The House Democratic majority has a sole cause: destroy the President.

They are pursuing no other activities or policies.

Maybe the House Democratic leaders fear their socialist left, which is rising so quickly and which represents a clear and present danger to their ability to keep control. Thus, they focus solely on denying the president any legislative success while investigating every aspect of his and his family’s activities.

It is a sorry state into which the House Democrats have twisted themselves.

This leaves the Senate as the recourse for governance.

But the Senate is also not doing well, especially in the context of its constitutional role and history.

The Senate, unlike the House, is structured to give the minority a voice. However, this concept requires the minority to act with some decorum and be at least marginally constructive.

Under Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw US women's soccer team reignites equal pay push MORE (D-N.Y.), obstruction has unfortunately been the only tactic of Senate Democrats.

This has undermined the institution.

It is not difficult to appreciate why this tack is being followed.

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Senate Democrats, like their House counterparts, fear their loud and aggressive base. The shadow of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersConfused by polls? Watch early primary states — not national numbers Confused by polls? Watch early primary states — not national numbers Biden leads in early voting states, followed by Warren, Sanders: poll MORE (I-Vt.) and those who identify with the causes he espouses looms large over Schumer’s shoulder.

Now an issue arises where it is the Republicans in the Senate who must decide if their purpose is to defend the core role of the chamber. They are being asked to take the easy path: to fold to the demands of the president and the cries of people who have neither a sense of, nor an interest in, the importance of the institution.

Trump’s declaration of emergency bludgeons the role of the Senate and the Congress.

Under the National Emergencies Act, the president has been given broad powers to deal with emergencies.

But it is difficult to claim that Congress intended its use in the manner now proposed. The power of the purse is at the core of Article One of the Constitution and Trump’s proposed course turns on its head this essential right of Congress.

One can understand that Republicans in the Senate do not wish to end up divided from the Republican President. This is not a good political place to be.

But Republican senators should be committed to doing the politically difficult thing.  

A Republican Senate should be made up of individuals who are strong enough in their own right to stand for the institution’s unique role.

Political gain will not result from the Republican Senate asserting the right of the entire Senate to be a separate and equal branch of government rather than an adjunct to this or any other president.

But even if walking down that path may involve some political discomfort, it is the right and necessary route to take. 

Judd Gregg (R) is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee.