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Scott Brinton

When a president seizes congressional power


Watching the U.S. Senate impeachment trial last week was like witnessing a slow-motion train wreck. You knew the outcome — you knew Republican senators would never agree to witnesses (Mitt Romney and Susan Collins excepted) — and all you could do was stare in horror as our democratic ideals of fairness and justice went up in flames.

Was this all not insanity? 

Many Senate Republicans — notably the often-bipartisan Lamar Alexander of Tennessee — agreed that House managers had made their case: President Trump withheld aid to Ukraine, a U.S. ally at war with Russian separatists, to secure a political favor: the announcement of a supposed Ukrainian investigation into his likely rival in the 2020 presidential election, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Senate Republicans would not, however, call Trump’s actions illegal, only “inappropriate.” That’s funny: Only two weeks earlier, the U.S. Government Accountability Office had found that Trump acted unlawfully by withholding aid to Ukraine. The way I see it, Trump hoodwinked Congress, and then GOP lawmakers rigged his trial to ensure that he was acquitted of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. 

Congress, and Congress alone, holds the “power of the purse” — the ability to spend taxpayers’ dollars. In particular, the House of Representatives is vested with fiduciary responsibility over our nation’s budget. Trump, according to the Constitution, is powerless to act on budgetary matters without Congress’s consent.

Article I, Section 7, Clause 1 of the Constitution states:

“All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with amendments as on other Bills.”

And Article I, Section 9, Clause 7:

“No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.”

Yet Trump withheld aid to Ukraine without consulting Congress, as was his solemn duty. That is, he usurped the congressional power of the purse. In effect, he became an absolute ruler, able to control both policy (in this case for personal gain) and the budget. Our constitutional framers divided power between the president and Congress precisely to avoid such a scenario. They worried about any one commander in chief becoming a monarch.

This division of power was modeled after the British parliamentary system, in which the House of Commons was granted the power to levy taxes and spend money in Great Britain. The system was devised three centuries ago as a check against royal power, according to our own House of Representatives website. The American colonists rebelled against England in large part because King George III levied taxes on them without consulting Parliament. “No taxation without representation!” was their famous cry. 

They were seeking representation in Parliament. When they did not receive it, they rebelled. They had many other concerns, but chief among them was taxation.

Anyway … in acting unilaterally to withhold aid to Ukraine, Trump violated his oath to uphold the Constitution — and thus abused his power. Then he attempted to cover up the full truth of his misdeed by exercising alleged executive privilege to ensure that key witnesses in his impeachment proceedings and trial — in particular, former National Security Adviser John Bolton — never appeared before Congress. That meant he also obstructed justice.

Republican senators would hear nothing of it, however. They acted like 5-year-olds holding their hands to their ears and shouting, “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you!” In doing so, they trampled on the Constitution, which they, too, were sworn to uphold. 

It was a very sorry week for the American experiment. 

But it was, no doubt, a sorrier week for Ukraine. People there must now realize they cannot trust Trump to do right by them — that, for him, they were mere pawns in a political game to maintain power, no matter the cost. And they must now realize this Congress is powerless to check the president.

During Trump’s impeachment trial, we learned from Rep. Val Demings, a House manager, that 7 percent of Ukraine is now occupied by Russia, after Russia annexed the Crimea region of this Eastern European nation in 2014, taking control under threat of military force. Six people were killed in the relatively quiet invasion. For perspective, 7 percent of the U.S. is 266,000 square miles — roughly the size of Texas.

We also learned from Demings that the $391 million Trump withheld represented 10 percent of Ukraine’s defense budget. For a cash-strapped country, that’s a lot of money. 

Thirteen thousand people have been killed in Ukraine’s fight against Russian separatists on its eastern border with Russia. I repeat — 13,000! Were Republican lawmakers blind to all that is happening in Ukraine? Did they not care? Are we, the American people, blind? Do we not care?

If we do, our only recourse will be at the ballot box in November. It will be our solemn duty to vote according to our conscience. 

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.