It was fascinating last week to watch as British legislators did what American legislators would be wise to do; stand up for principle.
Boris Johnson had just become the British Prime Minister. Known for his dictatorial and arrogant style he immediately ran into a brick wall of his own making; he watched as the first six bills — very important bills — of his leadership were defeated. They were defeated because 21 members of his own party, most of them former Cabinet members, voted against him on principle, a courageous act that effectively ended their political careers. Earlier in the day while Johnson was speaking a conservative member switched parties by getting up from his seat on the conservative side and walking across the aisle to sit with the leader of the liberal Democrats.
It was not a good start to Johnson’s career as Prime Minister.
Johnson had made some controversial moves which conscientious members of his party felt were unconstitutional and dictatorial, so they did what they had to do, not what they wanted to do. It is not easy to buck your own political party let alone your leader. There is peer pressure and almost a certainty of losing your next election. For some that is a small price to pay, but for those who swallow their ethical objections there is always the carrot of potentially rich rewards dangling in front of them.
This kind of political courage has not been seen in the United States Congress in a long time, but should be. Here’s why.
The writers of the United States Constitution created three branches of government for a sound reason; they did not want control of the American government to be vested in any one office or person. To accomplish this they created three antagonistic branches of government, the presidency, the Congress, and the judiciary. These were the institutions whose independence from each other created the checks and balances in American government. It was not a system that got things done quickly, and it was not meant to be. It was a system that gave time for reflection on issues before they could be implemented.
So, while Congress may work with the president, it does not work for him. But over the years presidents have found ways to circumvent Congress through the use of executive orders, such as Obama used to grant amnesty to the undocumented children of undocumented immigrants.
One thing no president has ever done, however, is to take over Congress’ Cconstitutionally exclusive right to appropriate and spend money. By declaring a national emergency on our border with Mexico, Trump has been able to divert, with the help of the secretary of defense, $3.6 billion from the Department of Defense to do what Congress refused to do even under Republican control; fully fund Trump’s dream of building a norder wall.
As presidents take on more and more power to run the nation as they see fit, Congress loses power. That might be alright with some people, but we need to remember that Congress and the courts are the institutions that keep the presidency from becoming a modern-day King George the Third. Addressing Trump’s diversion of money Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah said, “Congress has been ceding far too much power to the executive branch for decades and it is far past time for Congress to restore the proper balance of power between the three branches.”
Now is a good time to start.
Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.