The Constitutional Mission Creep that’s Letting Trump Ruin Everything

Most people know that the authority to declare war belongs to Congress under Article I of the Constitution. Isn’t that quaint?

So why is Donald Trump, who can’t even go big-boy potty all by himself, agitating to precipitate Armageddon all by himself?

Over the course of our history, two factors have caused what military planners might call mission creep (on a macro, historical level). First, as prescient as they might have been, our founders did not likely foresee that their creation — the United States of America — would become the most powerful country on Earth, let alone its “only remaining superpower,” deploying submarines any one of which can end life on whole continents. From the times of Teddy Roosevelt’s “big stick” (no, Trumpsters, that was not an anatomical boast) to the present, as the role the US military has played in asserting and guarding US power has intensified, so has the power and province of its commander-in-chief.

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Second, as an institution, Congress is broken and has been for a long time. The founders believed, with good reason, that human nature was such that each branch of the federal government, populated by ambitious and clever types, would be jealous of its own power — and that these jealousies would yield a phenomenon we have come to call “checks and balances.”

But Congress has instead been colonized by cowards, hacks, and rubes — props to channel the platitudes of oligarchs and theocrats. This erosion of character — never more prominent than it has been in the last ten years or so — has led Congress to behave in ways the founders never imagined possible: rather than guard its own power, Congress has sought to give it away.

That’s because today’s typical member of Congress is there only as a placeholder for the moneyed interests, biding his or her time until retirement and the big payoff. Gone is the principled statesperson of yore. Since the object of so many members of Congress today is only to get and keep power, there is one thing most members wish to avoid: accountability.

Remember Republicans in Congress scolding Barack Obama for not bombing Assad’s forces in Syria? That might have been a good thing to do (the bombing, not the scolding), but Obama didn’t want to do it, thinking it could lead to another ground war like the intractable messes we already had going on in Afghanistan and Iraq. So how did Obama get Congress to shut up about it already? He told them he’d attack Assad if Congress authorized him to. And the jig was up; that was the end of that — members of Congress wanted a war, but they were too chickenshit to own it.

The Supreme Court has rarely weighed in on the balance between congressional and executive authority, considering such matters to be “political questions” better left to voters than courts. But it has noticed the trend, and it has occasionally intervened, as when Congress tried to give the president line-item veto authority to strike out items of federal spending that Congress didn’t have the guts to cut on its own, even though the Constitution explicitly gives Congress, and not the president, control of the purse strings. The Court ruled that this arrangement was unconstitutional and even said why: it was a slippery stab by smarmy pols to weasel out of their own responsibilities. But this Court intervention was a rare judicial foray into inter-branch rivalries turned all too chummy.

In the age of Trump, the time has come to reverse course — we must insist on an institutional balance more in line with the one our founders envisioned — one that makes Congress the lawmaker and a meaningful safeguard against military adventurism and reckless war-making.

If voters are going to send this kind of person to the White House . . .

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. . . then they have to stop sending this kind of person to Congress:

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I’m looking at you, Texas 27th — nice job there. When we send people like this (Rep. Blake Farenthold) to put a check on people like Donald Trump and his small army of conspiracy theorists in the White House, that’s rather like sending in clowns to put a check on the circus.

In 2018, we have to take the midterm election as seriously as we’d take any presidential election, because the fix to our broken system must primarily be political, not judicial. The first step in getting Congress its power back will be sending people to Congress who want that power back.

Spread the word.

-bb