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Why Republicans should think twice about increasing presidential power

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In a summer of presidential tweets and polarizing invective, one issue has quietly attracted the concern of 100 former members of Congress, which is a largely overlooked decision by the Supreme Court on executive spending and congressional appropriations. When conservatives and progressives agree on something, it is certainly worth noting.

The Supreme Court ruled last month that President Trump could begin construction on a border wall, despite the decision by lawmakers not to fund the effort. Although the ruling does not resolve the ultimate issue of executive power and spending, it should be very worrisome to members of Congress who believe in the delineation of spending authority in the Constitution. Specifically, Article I states, “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in consequence of appropriations made by law.”

The Constitution makes clear that Congress has the authority to determine how public funds are spent. But President Trump sees it differently. He famously said, “I have an Article II where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” The man who railed about the executive orders of President Obama now assumes powers that he does not have.

The issue was introduced in the first speech of the Trump campaign, when he pledged to build a “great wall.” Then it devolved into a scene at a restaurant table where no one wants to pay the bill. The president said Mexico would pay for it. Mexico declined. Then the president asked Congress to pick up the tab. It refused, even when the Republican Party controlled both chambers. The president even allowed the federal government to shut down when Congress did not fund his wall.

Ultimately, Trump had two courses of action. First, either get used to the separation of powers or second, usurp those powers. He declared a national emergency, while at the same time admitting it could wait, and announced that he would spend public monies despite the decision by Congress not to provide what he requested. A federal court in California blocked the president until the Supreme Court allowed construction to proceed. However, the decision was interim and based on concern from the justices about the standing of the plaintiffs in the California case, not on the constitutionality of presidential power.

This is not about walls or politics. This is about the Constitution of the United States. It is about whether we elect members of Congress to assert their powers as a coequal branch or to shirk from that responsibility in the interest of political expediency. It is about whether any president of any party should have the power to ignore Congress and spend public monies on priorities that do not have sufficient support in the Congress.

According to a recent survey by Pew Research Center, 66 percent of the public viewed giving the president more power as “too risky.” While there was a very minor uptick of Democratic support for expanding presidential power from 14 percent to 16 percent, Republican support for increasing presidential authority went from 27 percent all the way to 43 percent.

Despite which political party benefits today, the erosion of these norms is not good for the country or Congress tomorrow. Republicans may relish the decision that allows the administration to appropriate funding. They will rue the decision when and if a Democratic president does the same.

How will you feel, my Republican friends, when President Sanders or President Warren or President Biden or another Democrat runs the same play? If there is one thing we can agree on, is it not you are in Congress not as casual observers but as partners? Is the Constitution not more important than who occupies the Oval Office?

Maybe that is why 100 former members of Congress across the ideological spectrum have joined together to oppose the decision by President Trump to fund the border wall. They are both politically diverse and geographically dispersed. But they all agree that Constitution counts.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.

Tags Constitution Donald Trump Government Mexico Pew Steve Israel Supreme Court

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