President Donald Trump’s recent executive actions have upended official Washington.
He has issued an executive order to terminate DACA. He has issued an executive order announcing his intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. He has issued an executive order to terminate the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. He has issued an executive order to end payments to health insurance companies to compensate them for subsidizing low-income Americans’ health insurance policies. And he has announced that he will not certify that Iran is abiding by the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
All this has Washington atwitter. Clearly this is not business as usual. What are we to make of this? First, it may be worth noting that each of these actions reduces the scope and reach of the federal government. Antifa protesters – who seem to have no clue what fascism really is – might do well to understand that it is not normal fascist behavior to reduce the role of government in society or to break the government’s connections with big businesses such as health insurance corporations.
Second, every one of these actions ends programs that were put in place by President Barack Obama – also by executive orders. Obama’s DACA policy, which made sweeping law-like changes to immigration policy, was already facing a significant Constitutional challenge from more than half of America’s state governments. So, too, with the Clean Power Plan, which one federal judge has already found to be unconstitutional. And so too with Obama’s payments to health insurance companies.
The Constitution is quite clear that no federal dollars can be spent except through “appropriations made by law.” Obama had no such appropriated funds, and spending money which the Congress never appropriated was also doomed to be overturned by the courts.
The same is true of the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal. Obama submitted neither of these to the Senate for ratification for one very simple reason: There is no way either of these agreements would have received the needed two-thirds of the Senate to consent to ratify them.
It is fair enough to argue that since the Paris agreement didn’t mandate any action on the part of the United States, it need not have been submitted as a treaty. But the same cannot be said about the Iran nuclear agreement. Here Obama took the easy way out.
In short, each of Trump’s actions is a restoration of Constitutional government. It is not executive overreach to end programs created by executive overreach.
Finally, Trump’s actions laid these issues where they squarely belong: in the lap of Congress. It is bad enough that successive Congresses have allowed recent presidents to conduct warfare in six different countries without authorizing the use of force. But for Congress to cede its authority to the president on immigration issues, health care issues, energy issues and environmental issues is wholly inexcusable.
In terminating existing programs, perhaps Trump can force Congress to act. After all that is just what Obama did in letting the Bush tax cuts expire and then bargaining with Congress from there. Perhaps Congress will pass a new version of DACA and other needed immigration reforms. Perhaps it will pass the Alexander-Murray compromise, or a different compromise, on health care. Perhaps Congress will sanction Iran for its failure to allow full inspections of its nuclear weapons program, its United Nations-prohibited ballistic missile program and its export of terrorism. We will see.
But if Congress doesn’t act it is certainly not President Trump’s fault.
Jeff Bergner served in the legislative and executive branches of the federal government.