Executive Power

Congress Grows a Spine

Thank Donald Trump for the belated attempt to enforce the Constitution's separation of powers.


The War Powers Act, which Congress passed in 1973, and the National Emergencies Act, which it approved three years later, were both intended to curb presidential power grabs. But until last week, Congress had never used them for that purpose. We can thank Donald Trump for this belated attempt to enforce the Constitution's separation of powers.

Trump is hardly the first president to use the military however he likes without bothering to ask permission from Congress, which has the constitutional power to declare war. U.S. participation in the Saudi campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen, the target of last week's War Powers Act vote, may be appalling on humanitarian grounds, but it is less direct than the bombs and missiles that Barack Obama deployed against Muammar Gadafi's regime in Libya.

In that case, Obama claimed the War Powers Act did not apply, because blowing up Libyan targets did not qualify as "hostilities." The argument was so laughable that the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel advised against it.

Obama, like Trump, launched missiles into Syria without congressional approval to punish President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons in that country's civil war. The unauthorized U.S. involvement in Syria, which Trump says he wants to end, began under Obama, who as a candidate admitted "the President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

Trump, like Obama, was a critic of executive overreach until he had the opportunity to engage in it. "Why is @BarackObama constantly issuing executive orders that are major power grabs of authority?" he wondered on Twitter in 2012.

After declaring an emergency he admits does not exist to obtain border wall funding Congress has repeatedly declined to appropriate, Trump probably has a better idea of why presidents do that sort of thing. But his attempt to steal the spending power from Congress did not break new ground.

During George W. Bush's last few months in office, his administration unsuccessfully urged Congress to approve a bailout of the auto industry. Undeterred by its refusal, the Bush administration swiped the money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which was created to shore up financial institutions. Obama expanded this illegal use of TARP money.

In 2012, a few months before Trump's tweet complaining about Obama's abuse of executive power, Andrew Rosenthal, then the editorial page editor at The New York Times, explained why Bush's record on that score was worse. While Bush overstepped his authority gratuitously, Rosenthal said, Obama did it only when Congress, controlled by Republicans bent on blocking his agenda, refused to give him what he wanted.

Another way of looking at it, of course, is that a president is on especially shaky ground when he does something Congress has explicitly declined to authorize. That seemed to be the view of the 12 Republican senators who voted to override Trump's declaration of a border emergency.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who supported Trump's request for border wall money, nevertheless faulted him for "seeking to expand the powers of the presidency beyond their constitutional limits." Paul said he would lose his "political soul" if he "decided to treat President Trump different than President Obama."

Paul also was one of seven Republican senators who voted to end unauthorized U.S. military activity in Yemen, echoing a resolution the House passed last month with support from 18 Republicans. "I don't think you can overstate how important it is that for the first time in the history of the country, the full Congress voted to tell the president that we can't be in a war," Paul said.

Trump vetoed the border wall bill on Friday, and the same fate awaits the Yemen resolution. But at least Congress tried to draw a line on the president's war and emergency powers, which is more than it has managed to do before.

© Copyright 2019 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

NEXT: Beto O'Rourke, 2012: 'We Cannot Continue to Spend Ourselves into Ruin'

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  1. Congress has shown no spine and continues to not do their job. If they did, they would completely repeal the NEA.

    Anything less is progtard and never Trump bullshit from a bunch of analid traitors.

    1. They can’t even put a SUNSET CLAUSE in the AUMF, much less remove it.

      The President has no expiration on his free-use war powers. As long as he claims a pressing need to combat terrorism he’s free to send troops anywhere in the world. There’s no definition nor discussion in Congress as to what objectives must be in place to define a victory, or even an end to the war.

      In some very small cases, Congress wants to check the power of the President. In practical terms, they want to have as little power as possible so they can dodge the risk of making important decisions.

      1. You raise a great point. All Legislation/Resolutions should have Sunset Clauses.

        1. Eventually, the sun will grow to become a red giant, expanding its girth beyond the Earth’s orbit. How’s that for a sunset clause? If that’s not good enough, eventually the sun will go out.

        2. If that resolution leads to have troops fighting overseas for 18 years, then yes, it’s time to add a sunset clause to remove the authority from one person so Congress can once again have their constitutionally mandated War Powers. We have not always been at war with Eastasia.

      2. This * 1000. Apart from Congress’s general fecklessness, the AUMF is THE problem.

  2. 1. Congress delegated authority.
    2. Congress delegated authority in a way that requires the President’s approval to revoke.
    3. Presidents played word games to ignore what restrictions were included in the delegation.

    1. TBF, the Supreme Court did #2.

  3. Its a win-win-win for Trump.

    If Congress does roll back the War Powers Act and NEA authority, Trump helped limit Executive Branch power in the future.

    If Congress does not over-ride his Veto, Trump scales back foreign military engagements without the bad guys knowing exactly when we are leaving.

    1. AND Trump permanently weakens Obama’s phone and pen “executive power”.


    2. If Congress does roll back the War Powers Act and NEA authority, Trump helped limit Executive Branch power in the future.

      Has Trump ever stated that this was a policy goal of his?

      1. If it happens, you can bet that he’ll claim that this was his goal all along. Ask Tim Apple about the President’s willingness to attempt retconning his actions.

        1. Sour grapes, Pollock?

  4. The difference is that in waging war on Libia, Obama violated the War Powers Act.

    In declaring an emergency on the border, Trump followed the National Emergency Act, merely in a way Congress didn’t like.

    Violating a law, vs using one in a way Congress didn’t like. It’s a pretty big difference, legally.

    1. Congress is also pretending that Obama giving Iran an unappropriated $150 billion was honkey dorey but Trump finding unspent pennies in the DHS and Pentagon couches to use for purposes that fit their mission is unconstitutional.

      Clearly, Congress does not consider itself beholden to their responsibility to the voters or the constitution.

    2. (1) There is an emergency on the border & it has been that way for decades, as BOTH SIDES for their own cynical reasons have ignored it! And the cost of continuing the status quo is much more than building barriers in key spots would be…Barriers that will surely help to mitigate the crisis!

      (2) Trump’s Ex. Order is very Constitutional…He is not trying to create new laws like Obummy did several times ( he was mostly slapped down for them, but, not for DACA) nor is he trying to subvert the Bill of Rights like some in the GOP fear a DEM prez might do in the future, and he is NOT asking for more money in the budget, but simply asking to divert funds allocated to the Defense Dept.’s general budget for his cause, and as Commander-in-Chief and head of the DOD, he has that right! Yes, it could be challenged in court as not a valid emergency, but, his request is not an abuse of power at all. It saddens me that people I respect a lot like Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Justin Amash & Thomas Massie do not see that!

      (3) The Pentagon routinely “loses” tens of millions of dollars a year and pays way too much for most things because of corrupt & crony capitalism in alliances with Military contractors and they use their finds to execute the IMMORAL & ILLEGAL wars that have cost America in the Trillions…Heck, I would say to use some of their funds to help a humanitarian crisis & most likely strengthen national sovereignty and save many millions of dollars is a great thing!

      1. “There is an emergency on the border & it has been that way for decades”

        “Goes on for decades” is NOT what “emergency” means.

  5. The President of the United States ? the Commander in Chief of the most powerful military on Earth ? is literally an intelligence asset of a hostile foreign power. With the possible exception of climate change, this is the greatest emergency in the history of our planet.

    We have already seen the terrifying consequences of having a Russian puppet in the White House. For example, his irresponsible announcement of a withdrawal from Syria was made on Putin’s orders. Congress has a patriotic duty to #Resist Drumpf’s military agenda since he acts in Russia’s interests, not America’s.


    1. It will be a huge relief when he’s gone and we can go back to not caring about Executive power overreach or war or aggressive border enforcement.

      1. At least we’ll know that if those things happen, the person who’s doing it knows what they’re doing, and cares about the result.

        1. Oh fuck you Pollock. No one was more incompetent and weak than Obama. Look at how bad he fucked up,everything in the ME.

          It’s too bad you’re such a goddamn partisan idiot that you can’t see anything for what it is.

    2. I am wondering if your posts are all sarcasm. I just used to think you were very left wing, after glancing at what you have written, but I just finished reading comments where you were talking about how it’s going to be great to give out trillions in reparations. And there are other comments too that seem to cray cray to believe. You are a troll aren’t you?

      1. A parody, rather. Trolls are a different species.

    3. That’s funny coming from a Russian clearly posting from one of daddy putins troll firms. Keep it up comrade!

    4. This must be sarcasm. No one is that stupid. Not even Maxine Waters.

  6. FFS, if Congress had a spine, we’d have a wall!

    1. If Congress had a spine, we would have definitive immigration policy and law, which might or might not include a wall.

      1. Depends on whether they used it to stand up to their business donors, or to stand up to the people who elected them. Based on the national emergency vote, I think they’d be more likely to tell their own constituents to stuff it, if they ever really did grow a spine.

  7. “Paul also was one of seven Republican senators who voted to end unauthorized U.S. military activity in Yemen, echoing a resolution the House passed last month with support from 18 Republicans”

    I don’t think the Democrats are capable of acting on principle like this. Show me a Democrat in congress today who will oppose something a Democrat president or progressives wants on constitutional principles. I’d like to see that.

    “I don’t think you can overstate how important it is that for the first time in the history of the country, the full Congress voted to tell the president that we can’t be in a war”

    —Rand Paul

    At the very least, Rand Paul has forgotten about the Case-Church Amendment


    1. Link went squirrely.

      “The Case?Church Amendment was legislation attached to a bill funding the U.S. State Department. it was approved by the U.S. Congress in June 1973 that prohibited further U.S. military activity in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia unless the president secured Congressional approval in advance.[1] This ended direct U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War”


  8. Congress only grows a spine when it seeks to shirk from its duties of protecting Americans and our sovereign borders. Congress was quiet as a church mouse when Obama was giving our enemy Iran $150 billion to spread terror with the admonition “Death to America!”

    1. Yeah. That bastard gave them their own money, and all he got was a promise to stop trying to build nukes for a while. Then the much tougher Donnie the T came along, told them they could keep the money, but didn’t have to promise not to build nukes any more.

      1. The first bastard literally shipped them $1.2B in small, unmarked bills, stacked on pallets. How’s the second bastard supposed to take it back again without invading?

        1. Pollock has no real answers to anything. He just loves being a progtard and saying progtarded things.

  9. I originally predicted a Trump presidency would bring journalism back to its senses and start to again challenge in the press presidential power. Little did I know they would go totally in the other direction in a two-year solid public freakout.

    The opposition party (but I repeat myself) in Congress has followed suit, not engaging Trump much in the way of substantial pushback on differing policy opinions but instead opting for ongoing flame wars with the president, to the benefit of really only the president.

    In this instance, at least, Congress (or enough of it) has acted as the reasonable check it’s meant to be. So I guess kudos are in order. You did your job.

    1. Ted Koppel: New York Times, Washington Post ‘decided as organizations’ that Trump is bad for United States

      “We’re talking about organizations that I believe have, in fact, decided as organizations that Donald J. Trump is bad for the United States,” Koppel said. “We have things appearing on the front page of the New York Times right now that never would have appeared 50 years ago.”

      1. Mr. Koppel is full of it.
        Go back and look at NY Times headlines from the, say, 1968 to 1975 period. Nixon, Agnew, Kent State, Watts, Detroit, the list goes on and on.
        There are certainly things that appear on page 1 of the Times that would not have 50 years ago, but it isn’t politics or (most) pop culture, it’s science and technology.

    2. +1

      It’s amazing to me now that we’ve had 3 presidents in a row who continue to push the bounds of executive authority, yet consistently are loathed for doing so by roughly half of the country. Yet we’ve actually lost ground on clawing back executive authority. I see no answer to why this isn’t happening other than blind partisan loyalty. It’s good to see a growing number of the current president’s party voting to restrict his power.

  10. “Another way of looking at it, of course, is that a president is on especially shaky ground when he does something Congress has explicitly declined to authorize. That seemed to be the view of the 12 Republican senators who voted to override Trump’s declaration of a border emergency.”

    Congress explictly voted down the DREAM Act or something very like it something like 11 different times over the years. Yet Obama whipped up DACA.

    1. Lots of presidents have abused their power, yet instead of focusing on the one who is currently president, you play the “what about the time the black president did it” card. And you wonder why people suspect you’re racist.

      1. Yep. No reason other than racism could explain the choice of Obama there. A non-racist would have brought up the abuses of a different president like William Henry Harrison.

        1. We are supposed to blame Bush, right?

      2. That right there is reason number 5396 why I am glad that Hillary didn’t win. I know that every time she got some heat from one of her, likely many, unpopular policies; there would be cries of “You just don’t like her because she is a woman, YOU MISOGYNIST!.

  11. I had hoped that if Congress voted down the emergency declaration that Trump would have accepted it and not vetoed it. Then the law would have worked as designed, now with the veto, he adds to his picture of pettiness.

    1. Yes, being committed to his most prominent and popular campaign promise, the promise that basically earned him the vote of the over 90% of the counties in the US. Even opposing the oh-so reliable and wise Congress as a last resort, after explicitly warning them he would do so. So petty.

  12. >>>Senate majorities that included Republicans

    T is proving the Elite Class lies to us about “party”

  13. Something about people getting a government they deserve?

    Given the national ignorance about our government structure and regulations, plus a populist/idiot desire for a Strong Leader, should we expect anything besides Presidential over-reach and a spineless Congress?

  14. I would like to say that heroes do not necessarily make good U.S. Senators. Both John Glenn and John McCain made their reputations as young men, then ascended to the senate as a reward. Both, however, were essentially much more motivated by selfish instincts in that job than by a deeper concern for their duty to the nation.

    John Glenn traded his critical vote on the impeachment of Clinton issue for another trip to space. He became the oldest astronaut ever, making a personal victory lap around the planet, as it were. John McCain used a critical vote on repealing Obamacare (which he had repeatedly promised his constituents he would do) to deliver a devastating setback to President Trump. Sen. McCain all but danced and chortled childishly at his “getting back” at the President.

    1. and stole from grandmas.

    2. No John McCain voted his conscience and decided not to leave millions of Americans without health care. He only said he would vote to repeal Obamacare if there was another plan ready to replace it. Remember the slogan was “Repeal and Replace”, but when it came time to vote they had only gotten as far as the “Repeal” part.

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  16. Why the fuck is reason.com selling the bottom of my screen real estate to Google and all those other mf’ing advertisers? I click X on an ad, 5 seconds later another pops up. Then sometimes ads pop up which can’t even be shut down (one from SAGE advertising some shit for small businesses just happened on my screen).

    I understand that that’s how I pay for the content of Reason magazine, but it is getting ridiculously annoying. I don’t mind ads on the side(s), but I’m touchy about the bottom of my screen, where I read the content and were I find ads assaultive.

  17. Congress is as spineless as ever. They just hate Trump.

  18. A particularly shallow, squawking goat-bleat of Reason staff TDS.

  19. So, what is it with the media?

    After acknowledging that Obama also abused the war powers act, Reason comes down on Trump for abusing it. Reason then gives congress some sort of back-handed credit for shooting down Trump’s abuse of power, even though ti sat on its hands when Obama did it. And Trump vetoed congress on this and will do what he wanted anyway. And congress did NOT repeal the war power acts, which Reason accuses BOTH presidents of abusing. We all know that this is not about statesmanship. It’s about politics. It’s ALWAYS about politics.

    I inevitably end up backing Trump, not because he is always right, but because he actually makes more sense than the media. It’s not saying much that he does, but he does.

    1. Nope, Reason called out Obama when he abused the war powers act, which makes calling out Trump for his executive overreach perfectly reasonable.

  20. “Thank Donald Trump for the belated attempt to enforce the Constitution’s separation of powers.”

    Have they passed a law to end the National Emergencies Act? No?
    Have they passed laws to end the invasion of the country?
    To actually enforce immigration law and deport illegals?

    Spare me the faux constitutionalist nonsense.

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