Congress Needs to Get Involved

by John Lawrence

Just eleven days into the troubled Trump presidency, a moment of truth has arisen for the Congress, few members of which (of either party) believed that elevating an inexperienced demagogue to the White House was an inspired thought. Republicans have largely fallen in line behind Trump’s vaguely sketched policy goals, although there was reported grumbling at the recent bicameral policy retreat in Philadelphia about insufficient consultation. Democrats, despite some pronouncements about working collaboratively, have largely condemned each action of the new President. Not a harbinger of bipartisanship.

With the stunning upheaval over Trump’s Executive Order on immigration and refugee policy, there is an opportunity – and an obligation — for the parties to unite on the common ground of standing up for the institution they have sworn to defend, and in which they serve. Although coming earlier in the Trump Administration than many had predicted (or thought possible), the crisis has arrived in the form of irrational policy, inadequate consultation with affected government leaders, amateurism at the highest staff levels, inexplicable rebuke to key foreign leaders and international colleagues, and, in all likelihood, a massive insult to the Constitution. In just 11 days. As Rahm Emanuel has advised, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste,” because it allows one to take steps that might have previously been impossible. This is such a moment for the Congress.

Those who care about the integrity of the House and Senate – and there are plenty on both sides of the aisle – have an opportunity to use their constitutional powers now to begin the task of regaining public respect.

Congress needs to find out who makes policy in the non-transparent White House, and how they do it, before more serious damage is done, perhaps involving nuclear weapons. The same diehard Republican inquisitors who set up special committees and spent many months investigating Benghazi and Planned Parenthood should convene oversight hearings and summon White House officials – there aren’t many in other departments of the Executive Branch as yet – to explain the decision-making that resulted in the Executive Order on immigration and refugees. Not only was the initial process cloaked in secrecy, but the aftermath has been chaotic: the White House policy director standing by the Order, the chief of staff reinterpreting it, and the Homeland Security Secretary clarifying (i.e., reversing) its impact on green card holders.

The purpose of such hearings should not be to fix blame – President Trump has been quoted as saying he thought implementation of the Order has been going just fine – but to clarify the lines of authority within the White House. Pulling in these officials and illuminating the decision-making process and players can be done this week, and it should be. One never knows when the next crisis will arise, although it seems safe to say it won’t be in the distant future.

Only the Republican majority can call an official hearing. Only the majority can issue subpoenas to those who decline an invitation to testify. If the Republican majority in the House and Senate decline to use their constitutional powers (not to mention their institutional responsibility) to initiate such oversight, they will have forfeited any legitimate claim to control the Congress, and will share fully in the culpability for the future blundering of an amateurish and insular White House. Oversight always drops precipitously when the White House and Congress are controlled by the same party; this time, however, that pattern needs to be reversed.

Although in the minority, Democrats have an opportunity to send a clarion message to Americans and the world by introducing legislation to reverse Trump’s unwarranted Executive Order. Such legislation could also establish clearer criteria for challenging or prohibiting entry of certain suspect classes of prospective immigrants or refugees, if that is even needed. True, as the minority, Democrats cannot schedule official hearings, compel the attendance of Administration witnesses, or mark-up legislation, but if Republicans refuse to exercise the prerogatives of the Legislative Branch, Democrats can file a discharge petition on their bill, bypassing the normal procedures to force their legislation to the floor. Republicans who refuse to sign onto that petition – it takes 218 signatures and therefore cannot succeed without majority co-signers – will have little basis for denying culpability for the aftermath of the current crisis, and will instantaneously become prime targets in the 2018 election.

The best outcome, of course, would be to pass a comprehensive immigration bill that addresses these and many other unresolved issues instead of continuing to govern by Executive decree and fulminating about a multi-billion dollar wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Such a bipartisan bill did pass the Senate just 4 years ago, but could not even get a subcommittee hearing in the Freedom Caucus-driven House. The atmosphere for a bipartisan solution to immigration may be among the casualties of Trump’s reckless blundering.

This is a test for the Congress, and especially for the Republican majority that alone has its hands on the steering wheel and its foot on the gas pedal. Either they follow the leadership of Republicans like John McCain and Lindsay Graham who dare to challenge the haphazard Commander-in-Chief (and who responded to their criticism by accusing both senators of “always looking to start World War III”) or, by their inaction, they diminish the Legislative Branch of our government and create a huge electoral opportunity for Democrats.  The disorder of the past week should be evidence enough that it is never wise for Congress to blindly defer to the Executive Branch, believing that loyalty is equated with patriotism or public service.