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The Imperative to Restore Congressional Powers

Photograph Source: Jeremy Buckingham – CC BY 2.0

You have to give President Trump credit for one thing — he has so abused executive authority that even the most conservative members of Congress are now clamoring to restore our vital constitutionally-established checks and balances.

It would be hard to find a more conservative member of Congress than Utah’s Republican Sen. Mike Lee. This is the guy who convinced Trump to slash the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument so oil, gas, coal, off-road “wreckreationists” and fossil hunters could ravage the canyons and their fragile ruins of the ancient Anasazi cliff-dwellers.

He’s also the guy leading the charge on trashing the Endangered Species Act and opening more federal lands to resource extraction while supporting even more deregulation of extractive industries.

In other words, Lee should be a hand-in-glove fit for the president’s unconscionable desecration of what’s left of the nation’s natural legacy to boost the wobbly economy and Trump’s dimming re-election chances. But apparently even Lee can only countenance so much abuse, so many misuses of presidential power and, in the end, the radical shifting of billions of already appropriated dollars to build Trump’s wall to circumvent the approval which Congress remains unwilling to provide.

As Lee bluntly put it: “If Congress is troubled by recent emergency declarations made pursuant to the National Emergencies Act, they only have themselves to blame. Congress gave these legislative powers away in 1976 and it is far past time that we as an institution took them back. If we don’t want our president acting like a king we need to start taking back the legislative powers that allow him to do so. The Article One Act will go a long way to restoring the balance of powers in our republic.” According to Lee’s press release, “the bill would automatically end all future emergency declarations made pursuant to the NEA after 30 days unless Congress voted affirmatively to extend the emergency.”

Trump’s abuses of the National Emergencies Act — such as moving troops to the border that would otherwise violate the Posse Comitatus Act prohibiting the use federal military personnel to enforce domestic policies — have opened the eyes of those who previously couldn’t imagine such lawlessness and authoritarianism in an American president. No doubt Lee was provided additional impetus when Trump ripped off more than $100 million in already appropriated funds for military bases in Lee’s home state of Utah.

Trump brought this retaliation against executive abuse on himself and fully deserves the congressional blowback. But it’s also fair to say Congress had best decide whether it wants to continue its budget-busting military spending spree if those dollars wind up going elsewhere based on presidential whim with little regard for the Constitution or law. It’s one thing that senators and representatives regularly line up at the military feeding trough — it’s another to have their pork pulled away by an out-of-control president.

Regardless of what happens with Lee’s bill, the imperative to restore constitutional checks and balances could not be more evident. Currently Lee has 14 co-sponsors in the Senate and they’re all Republicans. Given the total lack of regard Trump has shown Congress, the Constitution and the law, it’s long past time for Democrats and Republicans to stand up together and fight back against this blatant abuse of executive power.

Our founding fathers fought the Revolutionary War to free the “colonies” from the heavy hand of King George and the perils of monarchies. It is imperative that we don’t cede that hard-won victory for democracy to the crazed authoritarian now living in the White House.

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George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.

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