MEMBERS ONLY: Who’s Afraid of the Executive Branch?

by Justin Rosario

To the ever optimistic, a silver lining to all the ways Trump is abusing the powers of the executive branch is that the second a Democrat takes office, the GOP will scream for new laws to constrain the president. They won’t do this because they’re worried about the health of America’s democracy but because they believe that the Imperial Presidency is a right reserved for Republicans only. And that’s a problem.

It wasn’t always like this. Republicans used to believe that Congress, as well as the courts, were essential parts of the checks and balances on the president. It was Republicans that went to Nixon and told him that he had to resign, knowing it would cost them dearly in the coming midterm elections. And it did. Republicans lost 3 Senate seats and 38 House seats. But back then, country was more important than party. Those were the days…

Several years after Nixon proved to be a criminal unworthy of the office, most the Republican Party still voted for the Ethics in Government Act which established the U.S. Office of Independent Counsel explicitly to investigate the kind of lawless shenanigans Nixon got up to in the Oval Office. The law also shielded the I.C. from the kind of obstruction of justice that forced Nixon out of power. Foolishly, we allowed that law to expire and now we’re right back in exactly the same situation with a criminal president on the brink of firing as many people as necessary to remove a threat to his reign. Except this time, we can’t expect the Republican Party to do the right thing and force Trump to resign under threat of impeachment. And that’s an even bigger problem.

With every presidency, both Republican and Democratic, the powers of the office have expanded gradually over time. But while every president chafes at the restrictions placed on his power, it’s only been in the last few administrations that that power has been grotesquely expanded thanks to the naked greed and absolute disregard for democracy of the Republican Party.

After 9/11, Republicans rushed to give George W. Bush as much power as possible and used Fox News and AM Hate Radio to destroy anyone that objected. The Democrats went along with this in good faith and Bush immediately abused his power, instituting Dick Cheney’s vision of a “unilateral presidency” he’d had for decades:

Like many reporters Mr. Huq and Mr. Schwarz point out that expanded executive power was not a response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 but the realization of a vision that conservatives like Dick Cheney had harbored since the 1970s, when they grew aggrieved over post-Watergate reforms that put the brakes on presidential power. That conservative backlash gained ground during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and it was articulated in 1987 in the minority report of the Iran-contra committee.   

Once Bush broke the country and a Democrat was elected, Republicans spent eight years howling about Obama using many of the same powers Bush had seized for himself; powers they were deafeningly silent about prior to January 20th, 2009. Unlike during the Nixon scandal, Republicans now loved the idea of a “lawless” president but only when it’s their guy. And that created an even bigger problem.

Instead of acting as a check on presidential power like they were supposed to, Republicans obstructed everything Obama tried to do. They could have reigned in his expanded powers and the Democrats would surely have gone along with it (they tend to believe in little things like the Constitutional separation of powers) but that would have meant working with the president they were trying to destroy. Obviously unthinkable.

With a Congress dedicated to blocking even the most basic, noncontroversial items on his agenda, Obama was forced to push the envelope of his executive power past the already vastly distorted levels left to him by the Bush years. Yes, more of it than not was in the public’s best interest but that doesn’t mean it was healthy for our democracy in the long run. But if Republicans hadn’t be so violently opposed to the will of the people (we overwhelmingly elected Obama twice for a reason), it wouldn’t have had to be that way.

And then, of course, came Trump, the most lawless president in the nation’s history. Once again, the sound of Republican silence is deafening as Trump abuses his power above and beyond anything this country has seen before. The only reason “Never Trumpers” are angry is because Trump is an outsider and a moron that’s going to lead the party to ruin and they know it. If Trump had been either one of their own or not suffering from whatever it is that’s turning his brain into pudding, they would be pleased as punch with the damage he’s doing to the regulatory state.

A president free from the constraint of law, tradition, and Congress can do pretty much anything he wants. Like, for instance, dismantle every  agency under his control at the behest of the industries they regulate. Bush did this to a certain degree but Trump has taken it to a whole new level. If it wasn’t for all the unhinged tweeting and the neo-Nazis, the first year of Trump’s presidency would be the greatest victory for pro-corporate Republicans ever.

Assuming the GOP doesn’t figure out how to rig the elections ahead of the midterms and 2020, they’re going to go back to howling about the “lawless” president. Democrats, rightly fearing what Republicans will do the next time they scam their way into power, might push for laws to claw back some of that executive power. But since the GOP has proven that when a Republican is president, they don’t give a hoot about the law, the Constitution, or anything else, will that really help?

Is the answer to elect a series of Democratic presidents and congresses that will work to restore the proper balance to our democracy over the course of years? That would require an almost inhuman degree of discipline in the best of circumstances and these are not those. At the very least, keeping Republicans away from the levers of power for as long as possible can give us the breathing room to even try to fix the damage they’ve done.

Like a child who has lost the trust of their parents, Republicans have shown us that they cannot be trusted to hold true to the vision of the Founding Fathers. They lust after unchecked executive power and keep trying to install a king in the White House. The abrogate their congressional responsibility at every opportunity out of greed or simple cowardice.

If we ever want to constrain the executive branch again, we have to start by constraining those who seek to abuse it.