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The Founding Fathers anticipated a president like Donald Trump when they wrote the Constitution. That is not to say they anticipated a president who would cancel national security clearances to deter critics, publicly side with a Russian despot against agencies of his own government, undermine America’s global leadership by attacking its allies and the institutions that leverage American power, repeatedly and demonstrably lie in his public statements and regularly attack the free press and its role in America’s democracy.
The framers of the Constitution did not anticipate Trump’s specific actions, but they understood that those who hold power could misuse it. Accordingly, the Constitution established a system of checks and balances in which the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government each had powers reserved to it that the other branches did not. The executive branch was relatively strong, but there were deliberate checks on presidential authority, domestically and internationally, in the powers the Constitution assigned to the Congress.
Congress no longer providing oversight
Unfortunately, it is fair to say the current Congress has largely abdicated its constitutional responsibilities to provide oversight and guidance to Trump and his administration. This is obvious with regard to foreign policy and trade policy. In previous decades, Republican and Democratic chairmen have led the Senate Foreign Relations and Senate Finance Committees to conduct substantive reviews of the foreign and trade policies of presidential administrations of both parties — and to pass legislation that directed what administrations could and could not do. An example of this was the Senate committee's years-long impact on the Johnson administration’s Vietnam policies, under the leadership of Democratic chairman J. William Fulbright of Arkansas.
In contrast, this Congress has held no comprehensive hearings on Trump’s policies towards NATO, North Korea, Russia, the European Union or China, despite controversies regarding administration actions in all these areas. The Senate Finance Committee has held limited hearings on Trump’s trade policies, but has not produced legislation to affect administration policy, such as the widely reviled tariffs. And it has been the free press, playing the role the Founding Fathers intended, that has provided the most effective oversight of those Trump administration officials who resigned for scandals involving the misuse of public funds.
Sadly, the most active area of congressional oversight has been by Republicans in the so-called “Freedom Caucus” who have attacked the Justice Department’s management of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections. The “Freedom Caucus” has consistently prioritized protecting Trump over the nation’s interest in protecting the fundamental Constitutional right to elections free of foreign interference.
The Founding Fathers also anticipated the problem of excess partisanship in government. James Madison warned about the dangers of “factions” (what we now call political parties), noting they could act to advance narrow rather than national interests. Another current example of this is the Republican leadership in the House and Senate generally allows votes on legislation only if a majority of Republicans support it, not if a majority of all legislators support it. As a result, the Congress is stymied on issues polls show the public wants action on, such as immigration reform, but on which Republicans cannot agree.
Madison and Alexander Hamilton argued that the size of the new American republic would blunt the danger of factions, but not alleviate it. Ultimately, Madison noted, popular elections would correct problems caused by excess partisanship.
Mid-course midterms correction needed
The congressional elections of 2018 are a timely way for voters to make a course correction in American governance that the Founding Fathers would approve. Voters in the 2018 elections must support congressional candidates who pledge to hold Trump and his administration accountable, but who also commit to working across partisan lines to produce practical approaches to the challenges facing the country. Candidates who are uncritical of Trump and his administration and those who are hyper partisan for either party do not meet the Founding Fathers’ test, do not deserve support and should not be elected.
James Madison argued that the new Constitution was necessary because “[e]nlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” Trump fulfilled that prediction, which makes the 2018 elections among the most important in the nation’s history. In 2018, voters must demonstrate their commitment to the American way of constitutional governance and elect people who will make the Congress once again what the Founding Fathers intended: a check on the misuse of presidential power and forum where national, not partisan, interests prevail.
Kenneth C. Brill was a career diplomat who served as an ambassador in the Clinton and Bush administrations and a senior intelligence official in the Obama administration.
Editor’s note: this originally appeared in USA Today, and has been re-posted here with the author’s permission.
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