The Trump presidency has alarmed lots of people about the power of the executive branch. Democrats and even some Republicans are expressing serious concerns that the President is overstepping his authority and setting a dangerous president for a strong executive that would undermine the checks and balances of our three branches of government. This bold behavior from the president could approaches what Nancy Bermeo calls “executive aggrandizement.” Executive aggrandizement describes how modern would-be authoritarians expand their own power through fully legal means, pushing existing laws to their limits and writing new ones to codify their authority. While Trump is not granting himself any formal legal powers, his assertions of power make such actions more conceivable in the future.
Many of Trump’s power grabs are at the expense of Congress. In one instance, Trump declared a National Emergency on February 15 about the Southern border. This declaration allowed him to use federal emergency funds to construct a border wall on this border. Congress has historically controlled federal appropriations, and this power of the purse is considered a pillar of the separation of powers. In another example, he is challenging Congress’s traditional right to investigate the White House on its own terms. He is ordering his staff to refuse to comply with requests for documents and testimony from the House of Representatives.
Republicans are alarming observers by largely refraining from pushing back, even though these power grabs directly undermine the body in which they serve. The Republican caucus seems committed to demonstrating consistent and intense loyalty to President Trump. In all likelihood, they avoid criticizing the President for fear of alienating his base, on whom they depend for reelection. They are so eager to vote with him that Senate Republicans refused to call a vote on a spending package identical to one they had already passed resoundingly, simply because the president himself changed his mind about it. President Trump’s White House is clearly taking a broad view of its own power. But he is not the first American president to do so, and Republicans are not alone in acquiescing to overreach.
When Democrat Barack Obama served as President, he also took several opportunities to expand presidential jurisdiction. For much of his presidency, Democrats lacked both the House majority and the filibuster-proof 60 Senate seats necessary to pass their agenda on issues like immigration and climate change. Obama resorted to executive orders to make progress on these policy priorities, notwithstanding these obstacles in Congress. In 2012, Obama signed an executive order protecting immigrants brought to the US as children. This order created a program called DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), and the President defended it on the largely moral terms that these kids do not deserve deportation because they are not responsible for immigrating illegally. The program was then vastly expanded in 2014, largely to replace a compromise immigration bill that Congress had fallen short of passing. Many Democrats also cheered President Obama’s use of executive orders to set environmental policy, including through the Clean Power Plan. This law used the federal government’s authority to regulate air pollutants to set strict state-by-state caps on the emission of carbon dioxide. Though states could set their own paths for reaching their quotas, the plan represented a major expansion of federal authority. In both instances, President Obama is redefining public perception of what the executive branch of the federal government can do entirely independently of—and at times directly in opposition to—the legislative branch.
Democrats may have felt justified in this overreach because for them, fighting climate change and protecting young immigrants hold moral urgency. Unfortunately, there is no way to enforce what is moral and what is not. A president can claim that what he wants is moral, but there is no institutional check on the veracity of this claim. And if Democrats can expand executive power when they determine there is a moral emergency, anyone can expand it whenever they choose. In fact, President Trump in part made his case to build the border wall a moral one. In a televised address to the nation, he referred to drug addiction, murder and gang activity overall to argue that the wall was a matter of moral conscience.
Clearly, neither Republicans nor Democrats are reliable stewards of Congressional independence. Neither party can be counted on to rein in the executive branch, because each will support its excesses as long as they are the ones in power. This means that executive power can only be expected to go stronger until some US president may take true acts of executive aggrandizement and institutionalize his or her power. In order for the world’s first and most successful representative democracy to backslide through executive aggrandizement, both parties must agree to stand up to overreach from the President—even if he is of their own party. They must acknowledge that they both suffer more if the executive becomes too powerful. As part of this mutual agreement, both parties must move away from prioritizing the moral value of a political ploy and towards prioritizing its adherence to institutions. Nothing as subjective and malleable as morality must be allowed to have so much salience in political discourse. Trump has overreached the most out of any executive in recent history. There is some hope that a bipartisan consensus may form specifically in response to him to limit executive power. There is already push back from a small minority of Republicans against Trump’s power grabs, despite the loyalty of their colleagues. These Republicans opposed the declaration of national emergency because they worried the Democrats would do something worse with the newfound power from that precedent. A motion to override the veto passed the Democrat-controlled House with some Republican support, and even the Republican-controlled Senate. As a first step, Democrats must seize this olive branch as an opportunity to shore up legislative independence and power, or everyone may suffer the consequences.